State Efforts to Protect the Electric Grid

Dan Shea 4/18/2016

There are growing threats to the nation's critical infrastructure and lawmakers have been working to address these issues through a variety of measures.

Recent events have highlighted weaknesses in the nation’s aging electrical grid, sections of which originated more than a century ago.

Even as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene continue to loom large in the collective memory, Hurricane Joaquin ushered in October 2015 by battering the Eastern seaboard with record levels of rain and 100-mph winds. The increased intensity of recent weather events is raising awareness about the physical threats to the grid.

At the same time, a growing array of cyberthreats to energy infrastructure have experts increasingly drawing attention to the grid’s technological vulnerabilities.

Some legislators have sought to make the grid more resilient by diversifying energy production. More than a dozen states introduced legislation in 2015 that calls for greater diversity in power sources—from expanding renewables to supporting nuclear and fossil fuels.

At the same time, there has been a significant push to encourage and incorporate microgrids into the electrical system. These stand-alone systems can operate independently and supply power to a specific area in the event of a broader disruption to the electric system.

Some lawmakers are eager to promote microgrids, given the economic impacts of widespread power outages. It has been estimated that a single day without power in New York City would cost $1 billion.

Many states are also considering legislation in support of smart grid technology to not only increase energy system resilience, but also improve reliability and efficiency. These policies can increase the reliability of the electrical grid by improving the management of electricity demand and by allowing utilities to locate and address failing equipment or power outages more quickly. This technology comes with drawbacks, however, as it opens a door to cyberthreats.

As with many aspects of life, the electrical grid is increasingly interconnected. Millions of new intelligent components are operating in conjunction with legacy equipment that was not designed with modern cybersecurity in mind. These modernization efforts are changing the dynamics of the grid, connecting customer-based smart grid devices and utility control systems to the Internet. While this increased connectivity leads to improved efficiency and grid performance, it also increases the vulnerability to cyberattacks.

The scope of this threat has increased substantially in recent years—with persistent and documented cyber-intrusions into the power grid’s critical infrastructure and control systems—leaving some experts to warn that the U.S. power sector is underprepared.

Given that smart grid technologies are considered integral to establishing a 21st century grid, most of the cybersecurity legislation proposed in 2015 revolved around the creation of cybersecurity task forces or committees to study the issue and make recommendations on how to minimize these threats.

All of this comes as concerns linger over the physical security of the nation’s energy supply. At least 15 bills were introduced in 2015 that address the threat of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks, and at least five bills exempt critical information about the grid and public utilities from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

This report offers background on many of these pressing issues and highlights bills from state legislatures across the United States that seek to strengthen the nation’s electric grid. The report breaks bills into seven categories which address energy security and reliability.

Disaster Preparedness

hurricaneData show that weather-related blackouts in the United Sates doubled over the last decade. States have taken a number of steps to ensure that lights will stay on and water will continue to flow in the event of an emergency. Lawmakers in 16 states and Puerto Rico introduced at least 29 bills to address disaster preparedness in 2015. The report answers the following questions:

Which seven states introduced bills to exempt out-of-state workers and businesses from certain tax and registration requirements when responding to disasters?

  • Which state’s governor vetoed two disaster response bills last year—one that would have authorized municipalities to secure private financing for energy and water resilience projects, and another that would have established a commission to make improvements to the state’s electric infrastructure?

  • Which state enacted legislation that requires an energy audit and disaster preparedness review of all residential health care facilities?

Microgrids

These systems, which use everything from renewables and diesel generators to supply independent power generation to a specific geographic area, have become increasingly tethered to the concept of energy resiliency. The primary reason has been the microgrid’s ability to operate independently of the larger grid—able to supply power even when the grid is down.

Legislators in 17 states introduced at least 28 bills in support of microgrids, with 11 bills in six states providing grants, loans or other incentives. Among other things, the full report addresses these issues:

  • How did Connecticut use its Green Bank to support microgrids?
  • Which state introduced four bills on microgrids?
  • What role will combined heat and power systems play in promoting resiliency in Washington?

Distributed Generation and Diversification

Distributed generation—power generation at the point of consumption—can help keep the lights on during a disaster and improve reliability by reducing a utility’s peak load. However, some lawmakers have also introduced legislation which calls for the diversification of state energy portfolios. More information on the following and other key bills from 2015 can be found in the report.

  • How is Hawaii using distributed generation and diversification to reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels?
  • Which Midwestern state has enacted a sustainable energy abundance plan which supports nuclear power?
  • How can plug-in vehicles help to support grid reliability and which states are interested in studying this technology?

Comprehensive Plans and Utilities

The electrical grid is undergoing rapid transformations, and states are playing a major role in that development. State legislatures are pushing electric utilities to modernize the grid through investments in smart grid technologies.

In 2015, legislators in six states introduced at least 12 bills outlining comprehensive plans to modernize the electric grid. Another 21 bills require specific grid updates to improve system reliability. The report provides answers to the following:

  • Which two states have passed legislation requiring utilities issue regular reports on improvements made to transmission and distribution systems, along with plans for future investments?
  • How is Virginia hoping to use rate increases to entice utilities to invest in grid modernization?
  • Which state is considering legislation that could pave the way for the creation of a state public power authority with the power to construct and operate electric generation and transmission facilities?

Cybersecurity

When it comes to cyberattacks, the energy sector has been the most targeted sub-sector of all U.S. critical infrastructure since the federal government began publishing reports on the matter in 2011. The nation’s energy infrastructure faces a new range of threats as grid modernization efforts bridge the gap between Internet-enabled smart grid components and legacy equipment that is sometimes several decades old. Some of this older equipment was not designed with the Internet—let alone cybersecurity—in mind. While the federal government plays a significant role in countering these threats, utilities and states are also taking steps to strengthen cyberdefenses.

  • How would a pending bill in California protect utilities against potential threats posed by sub-contractors?
  • How many bills have been introduced in Georgia to create cybersecurity committees?
  • Which Western state is considering legislation that would grant the governor authority to proclaim a state of emergency in the event of a cybersecurity incident?

Terrorism

Physical threats to the power grid and other critical infrastructure also concern many lawmakers. Find out which states took action on the following areas.

  • How many states introduced legislation to address threats posed by EMP attacks? Extra credit: How many of these measures passed?
  • Which four states passed legislation that exempts certain detailed information about the grid, utilities and state energy infrastructure from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act?
  • Which state is considering legislation that would create a critical infrastructure advisory council to review the sale, lease or operation of any critical infrastructure with public security in mind?

Funding

Lawmakers in five states introduced at least 10 bills to help fund improvements to the state electrical grid.

  • How many bills did Hawaii enact to fund improvements to electrical resiliency and reliability? One, two, or three bills?
  • Which state enacted a tax on each barrel of petroleum to help fund energy improvements?
  • How much did Washington set aside for grants to advance clean energy and enhanced transmission and distribution control systems?

In all, more than 200 bills relating to energy security and resiliency were introduced in statehouses across the United States in 2015. These state policies play an important role in hardening infrastructure and preparing for disaster response in the event of disruptions and emergencies.

Access the full report, including state legislative action. Complete PDF report (12 pages).