U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today chaired a full committee hearing to discuss blackstart, the process through which electricity is restored to the power grid after a system-wide blackout.
“Imagine a day where everybody living within an interconnected electrical system loses power. Hundreds of millions of people would be left in the dark, power lines would no longer be energized, and generating stations would be off,” Murkowski said. “It means your lights would be off, your air conditioning would be out, and appliances like your oven, your refrigerator, and your cell phone charger would no longer be working. America cannot operate without electricity service, and we must have plans in place to restore power to our grid.”
A variety of everyday threats, including cyberattacks, electro-magnetic-pulse, and solar storms pose risks to the electric grid. Murkowski noted that it is critically important for the U.S. to be ready should an emergency situation arise.
“A system-wide blackout is a low probability event, but similar to a cyber or nuclear attack, the electric utility industry has to be prepared,” Murkowski said. “I certainly hope our nation never faces a situation where a total restart of the electric system is required, but it is critical that there be a plan in place should the worst happen.”
In addition to vulnerabilities due to reliance on single fuel sources and whether blackstart testing is adequate, other issues were raised. Timothy Yardley, senior associate director of technology and workforce development for the Information Trust Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, addressed the gaps that exist in cyber threats to grid resiliency and the reality of a blackstart scenario in his testimony, as well as those that are trained in response to a blackstart scenario.
Utilities Technology Council President and CEO Joy Ditto noted the importance of information and communications technology (ICT) networks, which enable utility crews to remain in constant communication during power restoration.
“These [ICT] networks and the technologies they enable have benefited the public by reducing outage duration and developing stronger, more resilient and nimble utility systems,” Ditto said. “The clear and growing interdependencies between the energy and telecommunications industries require more coordination between federal agencies, and we ask this Committee and others to take a leading role to make this happen.”
Murkowski is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. An archived video and testimony from today’s hearing are available on the committee’s website. Click here and here to view Murkowski’s questions for witnesses.