Commentary

Em-Powering Communities to Prepare

by Catherine Feinman

Modern society has become dependent on electrical resources that sustain communications, transportation, agriculture, finance, water, sanitation, and other aspects of daily life. As such, a catastrophic failure of the electric power grid likely would have devastating cascading effects. In this month’s survey, 58 DomPrep readers replied to a flash poll that addressed the topic of electric power-grid resilience. This article is a compilation of these responses.

Most of the emergency preparedness professionals who responded agree that:

  • The U.S. electric power grid is not secure (85 percent);

  • The current policy, regulation, and/or oversight of utility companies are not effective in protecting the grid from long-term outages lasting one month or more (83 percent); and

  • Corporate utility protocols are not sufficient to sustain this critical infrastructure in light of threats to the power grid (66 percent).

A community’s tolerance level during a power outage before civil unrest ensues and possible solutions to close gaps in electric-grid protection vary. However, by examining past incidents and determining where gaps exist, communities can increase resilience for their critical infrastructures.

Power Disruptions & Civil Disobedience Three examples described by the U.S. Department of Energy illustrate the far-reaching effects that power outages can have across jurisdictions:

  • On 14 August 2003, the largest power blackout in North American history affected an area with an estimated 50 million people in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and the Canadian province of Ontario. 

  • In 2005, Hurricane Katrina contributed to 2.6 million reported outages in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

  • In 2012, Hurricane Sandy and subsequent Nor’easter affected 21 states – from North Carolina to Maine, and as far west as Illinois – and left 8.6 million customers without power for varying lengths of time.

One respondent recounted, “I have been through a power outage situation for many days, living in a totally electric home. It was not pretty. It was in North Carolina, during the winter of 1968. We had a snow/ice storm, which resulted in 3-4 inch radial ice on the overhead power service lines…. Back then, people were not prepared for these types of situations. I was on an Air Force Base, and it too was not prepared, at the time.”

Unfortunately, almost 50 years later, many communities remain unprepared for widespread power outages. Some may argue that the nation is even less prepared. One respondent noted that, although some members of the public trust that policymakers have “solved society-threatening issues like grid vulnerability,” policymakers should “be honest and admit when there is no plan and people need to make their own.” A lack of information sharing with the public could exacerbate the incident’s impact on society. 

In addition to the level of information sharing, many other factors also would affect the length of time between an incident’s occurrence and civil disobedience within the affected communities. These include: time of year; weather conditions; homeowners’ ability to self-sustain; extent of the outage; location; degree of urbanization; distance between the affected area and alternate power sources; and amount of social and economic capital. By providing adequate warning for a potential incident and demonstrating efforts to restore power following an incident, community leaders and emergency planners can help mitigate the threat of civil unrest.

Greater planning, of course, often leads to longer periods of sustainability following a disaster. For example, small communities that are accustomed to losing power during thunderstorms are more likely to have contingency resources such as generators and water/food storage. Residents in large urban areas, though, may not have the same levels of resources, plans, and storage capabilities, which could lead to civil unrest in a much shorter time than in communities that are more prepared.

Issues & Possible Solutions to Power-Grid Failure Large, interconnected power grids increase the risk of communities experiencing a sudden single point of failure. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP), geomagnetic disturbance (GMD), and cyberthreats are all significant threats to the nation’s critical infrastructure. Addressing the threat requires a whole community approach – from putting the issue at the forefront of the public’s attention to taking governmental action.

However, several respondents expressed concern that U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), whose mission is to provide reliable, efficient, and sustainable energy for customers, and North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), whose mission is to assure the reliability of the bulk power system in North America, have not been effective in protecting the power grid. One respondent expressed concern that, “Since the definitive 2008 congressional EMP report, there have been no substantive plans in place … that have even started to effectively deal with any high-impact threats and hazards to the electric power grid.”

“Ideally, the power companies would harden the grid,” said one respondent, but everyone has a role to play. Suggestions for protecting power sources from a variety of threats include:

  • Gathering better data and surveillance, as well as monitoring individuals or groups that could threaten the grid;

  • Instituting state grid protections using independent experts and established professionals;

  • Creating more microgrids, which are small-scale centralized electricity systems;

  • Promoting personal preparedness measures – for example, bottled water, nonperishable food supplies, and generators;

  • Creating standards to effectively deal with high-impact threats and hazards to the electric power grid (one respondent noted there have been no substantive federal plans in place since the April 2008 Congressional EMP report);

  • Facilitating conversations with the public; and

  • Providing public service announcements about personal opportunities and responsibilities to prepare.

One respondent defended the preparedness efforts of electric utility companies, “I work for a major electric utility. We are better than the media and the public give us credit for.” This comment illustrates the need to bring this issue to the forefront of discussion and planning efforts, and open lines of communication between the government, private utility companies, and the public.

 

Catherine Feinman joined Team DomPrep in January 2010. As the editor, she works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content. With more than 25 years experience in publishing, she previously served as journal production manager for Bellwether Publishing Ltd. She also volunteers as an emergency medical technician, firefighter, secretary of the Citizen Corps Council of Anne Arundel County and City of Annapolis, and a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) trainer.