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Archive for the ‘Power Outages’ Category

Cyber-Security Grid

The Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552) was originally enacted in 1966, and has been amended a few times since. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “[t]he basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978). There are, however, nine exemptions, including three related specifically to law enforcement, under which the federal government can withhold information that would otherwise be disclosed under the FOIA.

At federal agencies today, and particularly at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, those exemptions from disclosure have been so broadly construed that one can say with reason that FOIA has been administratively repealed. Instead of starting with a policy of full disclosure, from which certain specific categories of information are carved out, federal agencies instead start with St. Peter’s maxim: they’d rather cut off their left hand than allow it to obtain information about their right. Imagine being at the British Admiralty circa 1906 and receiving a request from Kaiser Wilhelm for a complete set of plans for the H.M.S. Dreadnought. That will give you an idea of the view contemporary federal agencies take toward FOIA requests.

Like water in a state of nature, less interesting work in a bureaucracy always flows downhill, where it is handled by persons of lower seniority and even less authority. This leads to over-classification of agency materials as top secret and exempt from FOIA. After all, if you’ve been at your agency job for four years or less and your responsibilities include responding to FOIA requests, why would you release something and risk your superior’s ire, if not your job? Better to pick out an exemption or two from the FOIA menu and send back a response of

REQUEST DENIED

Of course FOIA provides for remedies to obtain disclosure, and those often work for large media companies and the like. But for the vast majority of Americans who lack the resources to commence a FOIA enforcement action in federal district court, those remedies are worse than useless. They’re a cynical joke played on the American people.

Now we have another FERC FOIA dust-up. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) submitted to FERC a Notice of Penalty against an electric utility for 127 cybersecurity violations between 2015 and 2018. The company agreed to pay a record-setting $10 million fine its cybersecurity violations. According to some reports the utility is Duke Energy, though that hasn’t been officially confirmed. FERC doesn’t want to publicly release the name of the electric utility.

Why shouldn’t the public be able to know whether their utility is the one that’s risking the reliability of their electricity supply and distribution system because they’re unable to get their cybersecurity act together? These violations, and the $10 million fine, are the fault of the utility’s management, not its ratepayers. Shouldn’t the ratepayers be allowed to know whether their utility is going to try to pass this cost onto them through rates?

Public Citizen, a watchdog group, has demanded that FERC disclose the utility’s name. They have stated that

“Concealing the name of the recipient of the largest fine in history sends a confusing message to the public that large penalties do not come with full accountability,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program and author of the filing. “Future violators may be able to similarly hide behind the veil of anonymity. Moreover, keeping the public in the dark about the cybersecurity track record of our electric utilities may create a false sense of security and reduce the likelihood of more public awareness and vigilance needed to protect cybersecurity.”

The real problem is that bureaucracies like FERC do not want the curtain pulled back on anything they do, regardless of whether any exemption applies. Any unplanned exposure of their operations risks upsetting their messaging and tarnishing the public image they want to create. Every public performance by an agency has to be staged just so, or else, in this internet media-driven age, a public relations catastrophe could occur.

 

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Paradise (KY) Coal Plant

The Paradise 3 Coal Plant near Drakesboro, Kentucky

Today the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally-chartered corporation that provides electricity to all or parts of seven southeastern states, will determine whether the Paradise 3 generating station near Drakesboro, KY and the Bull Run station in Clinton, Tennessee, both of which are coal-fired, will be closed. You might well ask why a coal-fired station would be named “Paradise.” If Adam and Eve had lived anywhere near the Paradise 3 station, as pictured above, they probably would have skipped that whole business with the serpent and just left on their own.

If the plants are to be closed, it won’t happen overnight. They’ll be phased out as part of a process that preserves grid reliability. President Drumpf has urged the TVA to keep the two plants open, which would help coal mining companies that contributed to his campaign. It would also help preserve some employment of coal miners, but any claim that keeping these two plants running is “bringing coal back” is absurd. The percentage of coal-fired generation has been on a steady downward march and, as explained in a recent post, that is not due to some alleged “war on coal.”

The reasons for shutting down these two plants shows the problems politicians encounter when their campaign claims to “dig coal” meet the real world. A report commissioned by TVA states that these two plants will have relatively high projected future maintenance costs and environmental compliance expenditures, high forced outage rates and are a “poor generation fit” for TVA’s future power demands.

Forget about air emissions for a moment. When coal is burned, it doesn’t just disappear. Just like the burned-out briquettes in the barbecue the morning after the party, coal leaves ashes behind; coal ash, to be specific. It’s a mess:

Coal Ash Pit

When it rains, water falls onto the open coal ash pit and seeps down through it, percolating into the ground below with bad effects on groundwater resources. When it’s dry, even a moderate wind can pick up coal ash and blow it over a wide area.

Coal-fired generation will be with us for some time yet, but over the long term it’s an 18th- and 19th-century technology that will go the way of the cross-bow, the walled city, and the eight-track tape.

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Electric utilities have to worry about a lot of stuff that sounds mundane, including that part of system maintenance that goes under the heading of “vegetation management.” In plain English, that means trimming trees so that they don’t interfere with transmission and distribution lines. The problem is very large and very complex because many miles of utility lines run through remote areas in which trees and brush, left to grow over decades (plural), can cause problems for both inspection and access for maintenance. In the eastern U.S., vegetation management is primarily a matter of system reliability: A branch or fallen tree can press one wire against another, causing a short or other disruption in service.

But in the western U.S., vegetation management is also very much a safety concern. A tree branch doesn’t need to touch a line to cause a fire. If it gets too close, electricity can arc from the line to the branch. If the branch is dry, which is often the case in rural California, it can burst into flame. Sparks, embers or burning fragments of the branch may drop to the ground. The ground is usually full of dry leaves and underbrush. Combine that with strong winds and within a few minutes a vast area of dry forest will be turned into a blazing inferno. The proximity of suburbs and exurbs to these forested areas only increases the risk to lives and property.

California generally, and PG&E in particular, has had a very tough history in this regard. going back decades. The Camp Fire, which raged through much of last November in PG&E’s service territory, shows that vegetation management is literally a matter of life and death: 86 persons died in the Camp Fire, which also destroyed 14,000 homes, more than 500 businesses, and 4,300 other structures. Estimates of damages are in the range of $7 billion.

CNN reports that California utility PG&E will file Chapter 11 at the end of this month. It’s believed that a PG&E power line came in contact with nearby trees and sparked the fire. The Camp Fire comes on the heels of a series of wildfires, also blamed on PG&E, in 2017. Those fires caused $10 billion in damages and 44 deaths. In 11 of those fires, state investigators found the company violated codes regarding brush clearance near its power lines or had made related violations.

 

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Linemen

The online magazine Transmission & Distribution World today re-ran an earlier article on the dangers faced by electric utility workers. Though it describes a really brutal accident, it merits reading if only to be reminded about the danger that some workers face every day as part of their job — more dangerous than police and fire. You can read the full article here.

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NYC Substation

The New York Times today reported that Russian hackers had gained access to nuclear plants and electricity grid controls, and would have been able to shut off the power in the United States at will.

That is deadly serious stuff.

More amazing still, it was the Trump Administration, that leveled the accusation against Russia. Putin may regard that as an act of disloyalty by Trump, perhaps triggering his release of kompromat on the Donald.

Perhaps he’ll announce a 25% tariff on Steele dossiers.

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Putin - exasperated

Yes Vlad, oil prices are all the way down there.

About this time last year, the Sparkspread pointed out that Vladimir Putin had overlooked Energy Rule Numero Uno when he re-annexed Crimea to Russia sixty years after Khruschev gave it back to Ukraine. That rule is that energy is all about infrastructure. So, before you invade a country with the ultimate goal of ruling it (and therefore, of necessity, administering it in one fashion or another), you should make sure you understand the target territory’s energy infrastructure.

This is something Putin notably forgot to do. Crimea has four power plants that aggregate to a rather puny 327MW in nameplate capacity, but demand in Crimea ranges from 850MW to 1250MW in winter, depending on the severity of the season.

The math is easy. More than 80% of Crimea’s commodity electricity supply is under the control of Kiev, and Kiev, being the capital of Ukraine, takes a rather dim view of Volodya’s revanchism.

The maps are pretty easy too. The little Isthmus of Perekop, which connects Crimea to Ukraine, is a chokepoint with two main transmission lines that supply the Crimean peninsula.

Crimea-electricity--638x539

Electric transmission lines into Crimea

Wait… Did we say that Kiev controls the electricity supply? Not so fast. Over the past week or so, saboteurs have blown up power lines in southern Ukraine, which have plunged Russian-annexed Crimea into an energy crisis. About 2 million Crimeans are now relying on emergency generators. This proves the point the Sparkspread made last November: Crimea depends almost entirely on Ukraine for energy.

And that’s not Putin’s only headache. Under Russian law, using drafted Russian soldiers outside the borders of Russia requires the soldiers’ consent. (Of course, “Russian law,” along with “moderate rebel” and “limited nuclear war,” enters the language as one of the 21st Century’s new oxymorons.) The fighting in Ukraine produced about 2000 dead and 3200 wounded Russian soldiers. Hmmm… How to explain that? Injured in training? That’s a tough sell. That many dead and disabled soldiers in a war of choice presents a fundamental question of political sustainability of the conflict at home, even if home is a totalitarian state. Vlad might give a call to Dubbaya if he has any doubts.

Oil prices stayed low. U.S. and European sanctions started to affect the Russian economy. Just as von Schrotter described Prussia as an army with a country, Russia can be imagined as an army with oil fields and natural gas reserves. But under sanctions, drilling for new reserves and maintaining the production equipment on existing fields became far more difficult. Putin’s oil oligarchs and their apparatchiks have had their hands full trying to maintain Russian oil production in both quantity and quality.

Vladimir had to weigh the costs and benefits of his Crimean campaign. Better to cut his losses on Crimea, leaving matters to the resident separatists, and focus on a new adventure.

Like Syria, maybe.

This past February, Putin and Peroshenko, Ukraine’s president, inked the Minsk II accord, which at least implemented a cease-fire, more or less. Peroshenko had to recognize his country’s loss of certain territory in Ukraine to pro-Russian separatists, and the deal allowed Putin to pull the Russian army out without too much loss of face. Putin’s proxy war through Russian-leaning separatists continued in full swing, of course, but since the Russian pull-out the separatists’ battles have not yielded any significant territorial gains beyond what was already obtained through Minsk II.

Kiev is not in control of rebuilding the transmission lines in Ukraine. Ethnic Tatars, whose parents and grandparents were forcibly deported by Stalin at the end of WWII, and Ukrainian nationalists have blocked repair teams. So far, authorities in Kiev have not tried to force the issue.

Putin is now accusing Ukraine of “torturing” Crimeans with the power cuts. Russia has responded by cutting coal deliveries to Ukraine. Coal sales are one thing, but he hasn’t shut off natural gas yet. Russia needs the natural gas revenues as much as it ever did, but escalation is always possible. But if Putin presses too hard on Ukraine, he’ll just unite Ukrainians against him politically.

As the winter sets in, this should provide some great political theater.

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Yesterday on the U.S. Senate floor, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) and Mary Landrieu (D., Louisiana) officially elevated the status of discussions of electric grid security from brouhaha to donnybrook. The senators criticized Jon Wellinghoff, FERC’s immediate past chair, for providing “sensational” if not “reckless” comments to the Wall Street Journal on flaws in the security of the grid.

The Sparkspread discussed this issue in its March 13, 2014 entry, specifically referring to a FERC analysis of grid power flows that concluded that disabling just nine substations in different regions could lead to a nationwide blackout that could last for weeks, if not months.

Senator Murkowski also called for an investigation into who leaked this information to the Wall Street Journal.

Wellinghoff fired back, stating that there was no classified information in the report, and that he and other FERC officials briefed hundreds of people in the utility industry across the country.

As the Sparkspread pointed out, the idea of attacks on a nation’s power grid are hardly new. Bombardment of Nazi Germany’s generation infrastructure was considered but ultimately not prioritized during WWII.  Amory and Hunter Lovins detailed the risks in their 1982 book, “Brittle Power,” which can be read on the web. It would be ironic if a detailed review of the FERC report revealed extensive reliance on the Lovins’s work from thirty years ago.  That these unknown persons carried out an attack on a substation shows that they already know about these flaws in grid security. This looks less like a leak and more like an effort to build awareness of the risk within the industry. If the House Republicans accuse Wellinghoff of involvement with Benghazi, we’ll know how serious this is.

Read the story here:

Wellinghoff fires back at ENR leaders on grid security study – Lesser prairie chicken gets ‘threatened’ designation – Obama in Saudi Arabia – POLITICO Morning Energy – POLITICO.com.

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