NERC highlights potential summer power grid issues tied to pandemic

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is keeping a close eye on issues that could impact the power grid this summer tied to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NERC noted on June 2 in releasing its 2020 summer reliability assessment.

At the same time, while projected resources are at or above the levels needed to satisfy summer peak demand under anticipated weather in nearly all assessment areas, NERC warned that the late-summer wildfire season in the western U.S. and Canada poses a risk to bulk power system (BPS) reliability.

As summer peak operating season approaches each year, generator and transmission owners and operators engage in extensive preparations, including preventive maintenance, supply stocking, and training programs.

“However, many normal efforts have been impinged by the global pandemic. To avoid the risk of failing to complete maintenance on-time, some owners and operators have deferred or cancelled preseason maintenance in response to pandemic-related issues,” the assessment said.

“Monitoring the progress of ongoing efforts to prepare staff and equipment for summer will be important to ensuring the availability of anticipated resources to meet electricity demand. Furthermore, system operators must be prepared to address demand forecast uncertainty and potentially challenging operating conditions as a result of low demand on the system,” NERC said.

The assessment said that the global health crisis has elevated the electric reliability risk profile due to potential workforce disruptions, supply chain interruptions, and increased cybersecurity threats.

In April, NERC released its Pandemic Preparedness and Operational Assessment Spring 2020 (special report) to advise electricity stakeholders of the reliability considerations and assess the operational preparedness of BPS owners and operators during pandemic conditions in April and May 2020.

In its special report, NERC did not identify any specific threat or degradation to the reliable operation of the BPS for the spring timeframe.

In the summer assessment, NERC said it “continues to assess risks and conditions and is pursuing all available avenues to continue coordination with federal, state, and provincial regulators as well as work with industry to identify reliability implications and lessons learned.”

Registered entities have taken steps

Since the start of the widening coronavirus infection in North America in February 2020, registered entities have taken steps from pandemic plans and industry advisories to maintain the reliability and security of the BPS, NERC noted.

In March 2020, the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) issued the first version of the ESCC Resource Guide as a resource for electric power industry leaders to guide informed localized decisions in response to the COVID-19 global health emergency. It is updated on a regular basis as new approaches, planning considerations, and issues develop.

The most recent version includes updates to the mutual assistance\aid section based on lessons learned from recent storms as well as an executive summary of work underway with regards to responsible re-entry and return to the workplace.

“In addition to immediate measures designed to protect critical operations, personnel, and functions, entities are working to minimize risk to resource and BPS equipment availability, assure fuel supplies, and prepare operating personnel for peak season,” NERC said.

Given that electricity demand is lower in a typical spring season than peak summer and winter periods, transmission and generator owners normally have the opportunity to schedule maintenance and address training needs, the report pointed out.

“Pandemic response and mitigation plans at national, state, provincial, and local levels can impact maintenance efforts by disrupting the flow of personnel and supply chains. Some delays to transmission projects due to disrupted travel of specialized contractors has been reported.”

In order to avoid the risk of failing to complete maintenance on time, some owners and operators have deferred or cancelled preseason maintenance in response to pandemic-related issues.

Potential demand and resource challenges for system operators

Where pandemic restrictions persist through the summer, system operators could encounter difficult system characteristics, such as increased impact of distributed energy resources (DER) on load profiles, distribution reverse power flows, higher than usual operating voltages, and minimum demands at all-time lows, NERC said. “Operating challenges such as these need to be addressed in real-time and often by using complex tools for studying dynamic system conditions.”

NERC said the effect of DERs on system performance can become more pronounced as synchronous generation can be replaced on the system during periods of lower minimum demand. It said that operators could face challenges in maintaining sufficient amounts of frequency-responsive reserves necessary to regulate or arrest changes in frequency.

Typically, DER effects on the system are more pronounced in the spring when milder temperatures reduce air conditioning load and increase efficiency in solar PV modules, NERC pointed out.

With potentially lower demand on the system as a result of the pandemic, these conditions could extend into early summer.

In areas with higher DER penetration, minimum loads and reverse power flows from the distribution system can cause some challenges for system operators, the assessment said.

“Operators in some areas may also have to contend with how a reduction in industrial and commercial loads could affect operating strategies and emergency plans. The potential lack of industrial and commercial load could alter underfrequency or undervoltage load shedding plans that rely on tripping these loads as well as demand response programs that may be relied on to support emergency operation.”

Where pandemic restrictions persist through the summer, system operators could encounter difficult system characteristics, such as increased impact of DERs on load profiles, distribution reverse power flows, higher than usual operating voltages, and minimum demands at all-time lows. “Operating challenges such as these need to be addressed in real-time and often by using complex tools for studying dynamic system conditions,” NERC said in the assessment.

Industry prepares to operate with a significantly smaller workforce

Meanwhile, as the coronavirus crisis unfolds in the lead up to summer, the power industry “is preparing to operate with a significantly smaller workforce, an encumbered supply chain, and limited support services for an extended and unknown period of time,” NERC reported.

Vigilance to cybersecurity threats intensifies as risks are elevated due to a greater reliance on remote working arrangements. The business continuity and pandemic plans developed by the different operating entities are designed to protect the people working for them and to ensure critical electricity operations and infrastructure are supported properly throughout an emergency.

Protecting critical electric industry workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic remains a priority for reliability and resilience. System and Generator Operators have implemented operating postures and personnel restrictions prescribed by their pandemic plans in order to protect essential personnel and support reliable operations. Many of these measures will need to be maintained for the foreseeable future.

There is a continuing risk that control centers or plants could be temporarily shut down if a significant number of operators or plant employees test positive for COVID-19 despite preparedness efforts, including employee sequestration.

As of April, many entities had begun developing return to work plans. However, the majority of entities indicated that they expected to maintain protective protocols for operating personnel through summer and beyond. When relaxations can be implemented, operators will likely need to stay postured to return to heightened protections if warranted by public health conditions.


NERC said that electricity and other critical infrastructure sectors face elevated cybersecurity risks arising from the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to ongoing risks. “Opportunistic actors are attempting to find and exploit new vulnerabilities that arise as entities shift work processes and locations to maintain business continuity.”

The Electricity Infrastructure Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC) continues to exchange information with its members and has posted communications and guidance from the ESCC and from government partners, and other advisories on its portal. The E-ISAC also continues to provide information regarding emerging cyber threats, the assessment noted.

Wildfire risk potential and BPS impacts

The assessment said that government agencies predict normal to below-normal wildfire risk at the start of summer for the West Coast of the United States and the southwestern states. However, the latest three-month Seasonal Fire Assessment and Outlook published by the National Interagency Fire Center, Natural Resources Canada, and National Meteorological Service in Mexico warns that the trend toward warmer, drier weather could lead to above normal wildland fire potential in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington beginning in June.

Across most of western Canada, weather patterns and forecasts also suggest increased potential for wildland fires, NERC said.

“Operation of the BPS can be impacted in areas where wildfires are active as well as areas where there is heightened risk of wildfire ignition due to weather and ground conditions. Wildfire prevention planning in California and other areas include power shut-off programs in high fire risk areas.”

When conditions warrant implementing these plans, power lines, including transmission-level lines, may be preemptively de-energized in high fire-risk areas to prevent wildfire ignitions, the assessment said. Other wildfire risk mitigation activities include implementing enhanced vegetation management, equipment inspections, system hardening, and added situational awareness measures.

Sufficient capacity resources expected to be in-service for summer

In all areas, with the exception of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the anticipated reserve margin meets or surpasses the reference margin level, indicating that planned resources in these areas are adequate to manage risk of a capacity deficiency under normal conditions.

 Assessment areas are prepared to meet potential peak demand with or without pandemic-related demand reductions. Should pandemic related restrictions continue through the summer, peak demand is expected to be lower than forecast, NERC said.

Projections for increased peak demand in ERCOT indicate the potential for energy emergency alerts (EEAs) during summer peak periods.

Prior to the arrival of COVID-19 and the resulting mitigations that have impacted electricity demand, ERCOT planners were expecting similarly tight operating conditions to those faced in summer 2019.

The ERCOT anticipated reserve margin has risen from 8.5% in summer 2019 to 12.9% for the upcoming summer. NERC said the increase in reserve margin is driven by the addition of over 1.9 GW of on-peak resource capacity.

ERCOT’s forecast of peak demand for this summer is also forecasted to grow, but higher-growth projections have been tempered in recent months by COVID-19 economic impacts. The potential for EEAs and operating mitigation at peak load remains, NERC noted.