NERC report highlights threat COVID-19 crisis poses for grid reliability

The reliability of the nation’s electric power system faces “elevated” levels of risk from the COVID-19 crisis, even though no specific threats have been identified, according to a new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC).

NERC on Thursday hosted a media webinar and released a report, Pandemic Preparedness and Operational Assessment – Spring 2020, that the organization said serves as a “bridge” until the release of its annual Summer Reliability Assessment, which is expected to be released in May.

The pandemic report is filling the gap during these “unprecedented” times, John Moura, director of reliability assessment and performance analysis at NERC, said during the webinar. “We are seeing unusual operating conditions” he said. “Pandemic risk is different than most risks we see,” and the risks “are expected to continue.”

The pandemic report focuses on three areas of risk: a significantly smaller workforce, an encumbered supply chain, and limited support services for an extended and unknown period. The COVID-19 crisis also means that the power industry must by “hyper vigilant” to cybersecurity threats because “a distracted workforce and remote working arrangements open up new attack vectors,” the report said.

Emphasizing that while NERC has not “identified any specific threats,” Moura noted that “pandemic risk differs from many of the other threats” facing the bulk power system because it is a “people event.”

The most fundamental threat facing the grid is the loss of critical staff needed to operate and maintain the bulk power system, Moura said. During the crisis, staffing levels could be reduced as a result of illness, the widespread fear of contracting the illness, government imposed restrictions, or family issues, such as a lack of day care or the need to take care of sick family members.

Reduced staffing levels could extend the time needed to respond to abnormal system conditions, hamper the ability troubleshoot and repair damaged facilities, preclude necessary preventive maintenance, prolong outage restoration, and possibly reduce reserve margins if generating facilities are forced off-line, the report warned.

Lower staffing levels will likely result in some maintenance being deferred from spring, when maintenance is usually scheduled, into summer, but “the jury is still out” in terms of the potential effect to the grid, Moura said. Deferred maintenance could result in more outages, but the actual effect on the grid could be mitigated because demand has gone down, he said.

A lower load profile because of shuttered factories could also pose problems because those loads act as insulation against low voltage or low frequency situations by providing load shedding services. “Those are things we have to consider,” Moura said.

Lower industrial loads could also affect systems that already have high levels of renewable energy penetration. With less load to absorb the output of solar and wind generation, the percentage of variable renewable generation on the grid could rise, requiring the recalibration and assessment of the performance of load forecasting models. “All of these changes need to be studied,” Moura said.

Looking forward to the hurricane season, which in the Eastern United States begins in the June, utilities are going to have to “take a hard look” at supply chain vulnerabilities, Matt Duncan, senior manager and resilience and policy coordinator at NERC’s Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC), said. “It is something that is going to be looked at for a very long time.” The pandemic really shows how interdependent the industry has become, he said.

Duncan noted, however, that utilities were able to provide each other with mutual aid during recent storms in the Southeast and in Maine to bring the lights back on for affected customers in a reasonable amount of time.

In addition, recent utility responses to a NERC Level-2 alert indicate that more than half of NERC registered entities would support mutual aid requests, the pandemic report said.

NERC made preparedness recommendations and solicited utility responses to COVID-19 in a March 10 Level-2 alert.

With the potential for lower demand reducing peak prices in competitive markets, one caller asked about the outlook for reserve margins if plants that depend on peak prices for their financial viability are forced into early retirement.

“Those are the exact things we do constantly,” Moura said. “Most areas have quite a bit of reserve margin,” so, “there is still margin to be had.” There could be a resource adequacy risk in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas area and the Pacific Northwest, but with demand down, it would be a little easier to manage, he said, but it is a complicated scenario with several moving parts.

“Demand uncertainty is a really interesting part of the picture,” Moura said. “We are trying to figure out the net impact.” Right now, it appears that the COVID-19 crisis could have “a pretty short term impact on demand,” but “we haven’t put our long-term binoculars on yet.”

NERC is expected to provide more details on the availability of capacity resources, expected peak demands and any potential reliability issues for this summer in its reliability assessment slated to be released later next month.

NERC also says it is monitoring the pandemic response and intends to publish a lessons-learned document when the grid returns to normal operation.