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Why energy security is critical to sustainability

Microgrids are the solution to grid-security threats, says former top U.S. energy regulator Wellinghoff.

A former top U.S. energy regulator has expressed concern over physical and cyber attacks on America’s bulk power system and is advocating the widespread deployment of microgrids to protect the system against such attacks and to improve the electric system’s resiliency in case they happen.

“From everything I have seen, our grid is really in miserable condition from the standpoint of physical security overall,” Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Wednesday at GreenBiz Group’s VERGE conference in San Francisco. A squirrel recently took down the power for much of Providence, Rhode Island, he added.

Asked about a Wall Street Journal report about Iranian hackers targeting the U.S. energy industry, Wellinghoff, now a partner at Stoel Rives law firm, said, “The way to combat it is to diversity our system [with] microgrids so if they take down one node, it’s not going to cascade.”

He added, “We cannot continue to have the type of vulnerable network that we have right now that literally can turn into a cascading blackout if a number of key facilities are taken out.”

Just last year, he recalled, unknown shooters used automatic rifles to take out 17 transformers at Pacific Gas & Electric’s “Metcalf” substation south of San Jose. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is leading an ongoing probe of the attack, which caused approximately $15 million in damages and took almost a month to repair – although no power outage occurred because PG&E transferred load to other substations.

“We still have no idea of what happened,” said Wellinghoff. “Microgrids ultimately are where we need to move, to a distributed type of system, if we are ever to put out a defensible system that, in fact, can be sufficiently secure to provide us the level of reliability we all need for our businesses and homes.”

“The human capacity to tear something down is pretty immense,” added Mark "Puck" Mykelby, a retired colonel with the U.S. Marines, speaking on the same panel. Pointing to threats not only from actors such as the Islamic State and al Qaida, but also natural catastrophes, Mykelby said that efforts to harden the centralized power grid against attacks were not enough.

“We have got to have the capacity to take that gut punch,” he said, adding, “You can have bigger walls… but the bottom line is, it’s not going to work. That’s why we don’t have castles anymore."

Wellinghoff’s and Mykelby’s comments come as FERC considers approval of new physical security standards for the grid that were proposed earlier this year by its certified electric reliability organization, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.

The proposed standards would apply to owners and operators of critical infrastructure facilities on the bulk power system. The standards do not require any measures to increase the reliance of the grid by expanding distributed generation or microgrids.

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