The resilience of the U.S. electric grid in the face of threats from cyber and physical attacks, not to mention natural disasters, continues to stir up concerns in Washington, D.C. and across the country. Among the questions is how big of a role the government should play in responding to these risks.
In this edition of the Columbia Energy Exchange podcast, host Bill Loveless interviews Bruce Walker, the assistant secretary for electricity at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), whose office is responsible for developing electricity policy, including that pertaining to the reliability and resilience of the grid.
Bill met Bruce at DOE headquarters to talk about the Trump Administration’s rationale in addressing the grid’s ability to recover from a disaster, and how its approach differs from past policies. Among other topics, they discuss: steps DOE has already taken on behalf of grid resilience, including a new office to better respond to cyber, physical and natural threats to electric infrastructure; lessons learned from the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico; and a recent Administration memo reported in the press that lays out a plan some view as unnecessary support for coal and nuclear plants.
View the transcript
Bill Loveless: Just how resilient is the U.S. electric grid in the face of threats of cyber and physical attacks, not to mention natural disasters. That’s an issue that continues to stir up concerns in Washington and across the country. And among the questions is how big of a role the government should play in responding to these risks? Hello, I’m Bill Loveless and this is the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Our guest today is Bruce Walker, the Assistant Secretary for Electricity at the U.S. Department of Energy and a man very much in the thick of these discussions. That includes a proposal under consideration in the Trump administration to require the continued operation of coal and nuclear power plants that might otherwise go out of business. I sat down with Bruce in his office at DOE to talk about the administration’s rationale and aggressively taking on this issue and to get his response to criticism of a memo reported in the press that lays out this plant to save old coal and nuclear plants.
We also talked about some steps DOE has already taken to bolster the grid’s resilience, including a new office meant to beef up the agency’s ability to respond to cyber and physical threats to the grid as well as hurricanes and other blasts from Mother Nature. Now, Bruce is no stranger to the electric power business. He spent more than 25 years in the sector. That includes stints as Vice President of Asset, Strategy and Policy at National Grid and Director of Corporate Emergency Management at Consolidated Edison.
- was confirmed last fall by the U.S. Senate after his nomination by President Trump. Here’s our conversation. Bruce Walker, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Bruce Walker: Thank you Bill, good morning.
Bill Loveless: Bruce, a lot has been put on your plate since you arrived at the Department of Energy late last year. But before we get into that, let’s talk about your and where you’ve been in your career. You spent much of it in the electric power business. You come here with a lot of chops, Consolidated Edison, National Grid. Tell me about that and what you’ve learned along the way.
Bruce Walker: Sure. Now I started my career at Con Edison of New York. I worked my way through the company and mostly on the operations side, rent control centers. Spent the stint in regulatory doing rate cases and did my career with Con Edison as the Director for Emergency Management for the company. And then I went to National Grid as the Vice President of Asset, Strategy and Policy.
Thereafter, I left and started my own company, Modern Energy Insights doing – consulting with major IOU companies on electric – usually on underground secondary networks. So, I spent a great time doing that. And also ran my Putnam County as the Deputy County Executive for six years.
Bill Loveless: Putnam County is in –
Bruce Walker: Putnam County is the second county north of New York City.
Bill Loveless: Okay. So, you’ve seen the electric grid from the inside out.
Bruce Walker: I absolutely have, yes.
Bill Loveless: From all different levels.
Bruce Walker: Underground, overhead. Con Edison was a fantastic place to learn simply because they really encourage people to get hands on experience. So, I spent quite a bit of time actually doing the work as well as learning and running the system.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, how did you end up here at DOE?
Bruce Walker: Well, I got a call from Secretary Perry one day, his staff to come down and talk to him. And I had been on the EAC a decade ago, the Electricity Advisory Council for the Department of Energy a decade ago in 2008 when it was kicked off by then Secretary Bodman. And I had stayed engaged on and off with DOE over the years participating in different events. And so, when Secretary Perry was put in this position, I spoke with him. And he asked me if I was interested in working in the office of electricity.
Bill Loveless: You know, your title now I think is what, simply Assistant Secretary for Electricity?
Bruce Walker: Assistant Secretary of the Office for Electricity.
Bill Loveless: Office of Electricity, right. I remember one time there were a bunch of other words and the deliverability or delivery and liability and all those kind of things.
Bruce Walker: Well, we’re trying to simplify it.
- Loveless: That sounds like a good idea. But you know, reliability was there, resilience was there and of course, those are two words that we hear a lot about these days. What is the difference between reliability and resilience? So, I think, you know, maybe a lot of people understand this. But I’m not quite sure everyone necessarily does.
Bruce Walker: No. And I think it’s a good debate that’s going on in the industry to try to define it. Fundamentally, the reliability is that every day, kind of blue sky if you will, being able to turn the lights on. And that’s – reliability of the industry has really done a great job with reliability and getting 99.9 – I think, 69 or so percent reliable. Resiliency is really the capability of the system to withstand excursions that are not ordinary.
So, storms, hurricanes, cyber attacks, things of that nature. So, one is the day to day blue sky, the other one is the odd events. And so, we focus on the resiliency component simply because it’s really the backbone to national security.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. And as we sit here, I mean that’s been a big, I mean a more prominent issue. We’re getting more attention than ever before, that whole question of resilience of the grid.
Bruce Walker: Right. And some of that is driven by the interdependence today of the different energy infrastructure throughout the United States. So, if you went back 20 or 30 years, many utilities didn’t have a high penetration of natural gas generation. Today however, there are – significant amount of the system has generation that’s supplied by natural gas. And the pipelines therefore become critical infrastructure because if you destroy the pipeline whether through cyber or physical attack, then you end up having lots of generators come offline simultaneously whereas that was not the case if you went back 20 or 30 years.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, times have changed and we’ve seen the changes in the loads, the supplies – that the electric grid relies on to generate electricity today; gas, coal, nuclear et cetera and renewables. You know, as we sit here, there are headlines about the Trump Administration’s efforts to assure the resilience of the electric grid and the memo that’s been reported regarding the administration’s interest in finding ways to keep coal power plants and nuclear power plants online to assure that the grid remains resilient. Talk to me a little bit about that and what the rationale is there?
Bruce Walker: It gets back to the core function of the Department of Energy. So, the grid exists and it’s looked at fundamentally in there different ways. FERC, NERC and the Department of Energy each have a role on that. FERC controls and has jurisdiction over the markets. NERC looks at the reliability of the grid.
Bill Loveless: And NERC by the way is the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
Bruce Walker: That’s correct. And DOE’s role is a national security role. And there are 16 critical infrastructures as defined by the Department of Homeland Security. Energy is one of them. But I think everybody would recognize that the other 15 sectors rely upon electricity to perform their functions. And so, when you look across those 16 sectors, and you recognize the risks that we fact today, the risk factors, particularly cyber and physical security, you recognize that our grid is vulnerable.
And we look at strategies to ensure that when the day comes that we need to stand the grid up, we have all the tools necessary. Generation is a fundamental component of that. And when you look at generation, one of the things that’s very interesting about the different types of generation, not only coal and nuclear, but some of the biomass, some of the oil generation is it they have onsite fuel. And so, the whole supply chain issue. And again, the supply chain because of the Internet of Things has lots of cyber vulnerable assets in it as well.
So, when you look at secure generation with onsite fuel, that’s very important as we move forward in a world where there is significant interdependencies between the critical infrastructure and the energy sector and where we have vulnerabilities that we face every day through cyber and physical attack. DHS will tell you that the energy sector has been the target of many cyber events that we see on a daily basis. And we continue to monitor that. We continue to develop R&D strategies to stay that eliminate the risk.
We just issued a funding opportunity announcement back into industry for $25 million to look at the fundamental redesign of some of the cyber vulnerable assets, things like relying or – the relaying architecture or schemes that are utilized throughout the energy sector.
Bill Loveless: Right, right. But you're facing a lot of pushback on this. I mean many – even within the electric power industry, we are saying that the focus on nuclear and coal plants is wrong that, you know, the _____ [00:09:37] bailout for these particular types of assets, you know, you're getting the pushback from certainly the oil – the natural gas industry, the renewables industry and even from the – some sectors of the electric power industry such as PGM, the grid operator of 13 states in the mid Atlantic and the north east. How do you respond to that?
Bruce Walker: Again, the Department of Energy is uniquely situated, in that it’s part of the intelligence community. And as part of the intelligence community, we make classified intelligence decisions. We utilize information that we have to secure from a national security perspective of the United States and that’s our mission. We are looking at lots and lots of different strategies. And we’re not only looking at coal, nuclear generation, we’re looking at all generation and we’re looking at how the grid comes together which is why my team has been focused on developing the North American resiliency model which is focused on understanding and highlighting the interdependencies of the different systems.
As that’s completed, we’ll have a better understanding of the vulnerabilities that the system has as it’s evolved and we’ll be able to make investments to ensure that we can secure the national security mission.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, I mean as we sit here and talk, no final decisions have been made on what action, the department or the Trump administration may take along these lines. But is it something that you think a final decision will be made any time soon?
Bruce Walker: We continue to investigate all opportunities. At this time, it’s what the mission of my department is – is squarely focused on national security. So, we have lots of operational strategies that we’re investigating and will continue to do that with an iron focus on national security.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. You talk of the importance of fuel secure facilities. If I recall correctly there have been a number of reports that point to the distribution and transition lines as the most vulnerable places for attack, be it cyber or physical. There lies the greatest vulnerability, not necessarily the so-called fuel secure power plants.
Bruce Walker: Well, I think that the entire energy infrastructure whether it’s oil and natural gas as well as the emission distribution systems are vulnerable. They're vulnerable from cyber attacks simply because the integrated circuitry and the control system, the relaying and all things that have been place on these systems that have cyber capability, also and necessarily have cyber vulnerability.
So, it’s not one component of the system that the energy system in totality that’s at risk. And that’s what the real concern is, is that across the energy sector including oil, natural gas, nuclear, coal, biomass all of these things that have any tie to the internet, any ties to cyber, they have the vulnerabilities that we’re all recognizing. Dan Coats who is our Director of National Intelligence noted in his 2018 worldwide threat assessment that we’re seeing an increased frequency and more importantly an increased sophistication in cyber events.
Bill Loveless: Right. And you see, I was going to ask in terms of cyber events, I mean how frequently do you see them occurring on the grid or on the energy infrastructure?
Bruce Walker: DHS has been monitoring that and the information that they would promulgate, suggests that more than half of the intrusions or attempts have been on the energy sector. And we work very closely with DHS in that field to understand what our vulnerabilities are and what type of attempts and intrusions are being made. But we see thousands of them across the system.
Bill Loveless: You know, I want to get back to this plan and this memo just to make sure we’re clear. I mean there's been a lot of criticism that a plan along these lines where there would be some sort of compensation under the federal power act, the defense production act requiring the use of coal and nuclear power plants would distort the market, would disrupt the whole sale markets and market – electric power markets generally. I mean do you see the grid – do you worry about there would be a risk that you could do something that could be that disruptive to the electric power grid?
Bruce Walker: I have not done an economic analysis and I guess the question I would pose is what's the value of national security, so which I think is priceless. Our freedom in this country and our democracy is priceless. So again, our department’s focus is on national security, and where we understand the vulnerabilities based on our position within the intelligence community. We will act, we will not stand back and not act. So, we’ll continue to work and evaluate our strategies and when we’ve decided what that strategy is, we’ll act on it.
Bill Loveless: I find it interesting. I mean it seems like the national security aspect is something we haven’t heard before. I mean it seems to be a new consideration in considering and looking for ways of assuring resilience here more so than perhaps as been considered in the past.
Bruce Walker: Perhaps, but with the administration that’s focused on our national security on various fronts and I think you’ve seen that through various acts of the administration. Clearly, we understand the risks and we will do everything we can to protect the United States.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. Have you talked to many people in the – some of your colleagues, former colleagues in the industry about this recently and got much feedback to what the plans are evolving?
Bruce Walker: No, I’ve not.
Bill Loveless: I imagine this – and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has a preceding underway looking at resilience as well. Would you wait until FERC is done with its process – preceding?
Bruce Walker: We work very closely with FERC and NERC through the developing strategies, understanding risk. We deal with them on a – fundamentally a daily basis just like we do with DHS and the Department of Defense. So, we will continue to work with FERC and NERC as partners. And again, when we’ve decided what the best strategy is moving forward, we’ll act accordingly.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. And you're conscious too, a lot of your critics, the administration's critics on this would say it’s simply a way of coming to the aid of supporters in the coal business, with power plants and all. You don’t see it that way?
Bruce Walker: I specifically am focused on the national security components within the United States. So, from my standpoint, people obviously have lots of different opinions about lots of different things. But the fact of the matter is the mission of the Department of Energy is grounded on national security. And as I mentioned earlier, we are part of the intelligence community, one of the 16 agencies that is involved with that. We work very closely within those – that sphere to understand what the risks are. And we utilize that information to make the best decisions we can for the security of the nation.
Bill Loveless: All right. It seems like the reliability is – I think this general agreement is – the grid is reliable today. But there’s a concern among some and such as yourself, I think that maybe the conventional view of reliability may not be adequate when you --.
Bruce Walker: Well, there’s no doubt that the grid is reliable. As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s around 99 with perfect six nines behind it. But again, the reliability, the day to day is not the focus of my office within DOE. And so, therefore, we look at things that can ensure that when necessary will have the energy necessary to stand up the 16 critical infrastructures necessary to establish the health and safety of the public.
Bill Loveless: Right. Let’s talk about cyber security. DOE’s responsibilities here have been heightened under recent laws and presidential directives and you have a new office here, goes by the acronym CISA [phonetic] [00:18:23].
Bruce Walker: That’s correct.
Bill Loveless: You can tell me who – what CISA stands for. But what difference does all of this make?
Bruce Walker: So, first to step back, CISA is the office of cyber security, energy security and emergency restoration. I am presently the acting assistant secretary for that department and it is comprised of two of the departments that were formerly in my longer named department.
Bill Loveless: So, you're holding two positions right now [crosstalk] [00:18:51] someone else.
Bruce Walker: That’s correct.
Bill Loveless: Excuse me, eventually someone else will be named for CISA.
Bruce Walker: Right. That would be an appointment from the White House and then there would be senate confirmed. So, with regard to the heightened awareness in 2015 under the fast act, there were requirements set forth in there with the secretary of energy with regard to defining the defense critical electric infrastructure. And we have been working and continue to work on that to understand what facilities those are and how to best protect those facilities to ensure that when we need them that we have the energy and electricity necessary for them to work.
Bill Loveless: I mean there’s been steps taken by the government and industry working together over the recent years to address cyber risk and the impression one gets is that, you know, industry and the government working pretty closely on this. What's happening now? How does CISA make a difference? Where is the margin here, where do you need to really drill down?
Bruce Walker: So, we work very closely with the industry, particularly through our electric subsector coordinating council as well as our oil and natural gas subsector coordinating council. And we work very closely with them with things like cyber, mutual aid processes, things of that nature. From the cyber standpoint, as I mentioned earlier, we issue out a $25 million funding opportunity back into industry to work with the industry to fundamentally redesign some of the cyber. I think the issue is, it gets back to what I mentioned earlier with Dan Coats’ testimony.
We’re seeing an increased frequency as well as sophistication with state actors and others with the use of cyber. And we are therefore focused on addressing those issues. We have a great deal of R&D work being done by our 17 national labs on looking at better ways to protect pieces of equipment on both oil and natural gas as well as electricity side for the national security component, to ensure that the energy infrastructure is available.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. But what in particular has been missing do you think in terms of the attention that this is receiving?
Bruce Walker: Well, I think that it continues to evolve and I think it’s been evolving faster than people had anticipated it would. And we are addressing it as best we can. But it continues to evolve every day.
Bill Loveless: Right. And it’s not just cyber attacks that you're concerned about, but physical attacks as well.
Bruce Walker: Right. I mean before 2001 with 9/11, I don’t think people really were concerned about domestic terrorism. But today, that’s a possibility as it is regular terrorism from other state actors. And so, therefore physical security is as important as cyber security. Even I would note that when the industry, both oil, natural gas and electric were being built over the last century, we didn’t have cyber. I mean computers didn’t exist. And domestic terrorism or terrorism as we know it today fundamentally didn’t – wasn’t readily seen.
And so, the systems weren’t designed with that in mind. And therefore, we have to now go back and take a look at the best way to move forward with both of those sets of infrastructure.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. And certainly a wakeup call occurred back in 2013 with the assault on the Pacific Gas and Electric companies, Metcalf Transmission Substation outside of San Jose that was – gun man fired on 17 of the transformers there and caused $15 million in damage. Now there was no loss of power for the customers of PG&E in the area, but nevertheless it was alarming and some saw it as perhaps a precursor of what could happen again.
Bruce Walker: And again, it gets back to the fact that these systems weren’t built or designed with that in mind. So, the substations are out in the middle of open space throughout the country. You see the natural gas lines, same thing. I was just up in Alaska flying over the Alaskan pipeline and you see how vast the space is in Alaska and how unprotected things like our petroleum system is.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, stretched out and often in desolate areas where there’s no human contact.
Bruce Walker: Very open area.
Bill Loveless: Very open areas out there. We’re just beginning the hurricane season here in the United States and we’re just off a rather rough one, last year particularly in the case of Puerto Rico which saw virtually its entire grid taken down by the storm. What's on your mind right now on hurricane season? And when you look back at a situation like Puerto Rico, what are you thinking?
Bruce Walker: We continue to work very closely with Puerto Rico, particularly PREPA, the utility company. As you may know, it was actually the first place I went after being sworn in, in October last year. And we’ve continued to be engaged very much with Puerto Rico. I have a number of people down there working with FEMA and with PREPA.
We’ve been working across the army corps, FEMA as well as DOE to prepare for the upcoming season, particularly down in Puerto Rico where they're just finishing up the last several thousand customers that still remain out and some tremendous work by the crews that are down there. And we’re very fortunate that the mutual aid process stepped in through the efforts of EEI, APPA and _____ [00:24:45] as well as crews from our PMAs to work with Puerto Rico and restore that grid.
So, very proud of the mutual aid process and happy to say that I grew up in that industry when you see them mobilize and coming out like that.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, I think it was Carlos Torres.
Bruce Walker: Carlos, yeah, a very good friend of mine.
Bill Loveless: Consolidated Edison, perhaps a former colleague of yours, he’s been sort of heading up the industrial and utility effort down at Puerto Rico.
Bruce Walker: That’s right. He was working for EEI and Navacord and some great efforts by all the membership of those three agencies.
Bill Loveless: And so, when I look at a place like Puerto Rico now, I wonder, is there an opportunity there to rebuild a grid in some fashion to protect against some of these issues? You can name all kinds of issues that you might want to protect against, but one certainly would be security. Or are they simply stringing up things the way they were before and there really isn't time to think about a new way of doing? And the same could be said for Huston or any other place that’s been hard hit, seeing the infrastructure hard hit by natural disasters.
Bruce Walker: We’re actually working very closely with Puerto Rico to ensure that as we move forward, we actually incorporate some of the latest technologies, whether it’s cyber security efforts or whether it’s redesign of certain pieces of equipment to make it more resilient going forward. So, Congress has identified about $2 billion in their supplemental funding to HUD to look at rebuilding the components of the electric grid.
And we’re working closely with HUD as well as PREPA as they move forward in putting that plan together to ensure that we can provide the best value. We’re looking at unique things like printing 3D poles from our Oak Ridge National Lab that will have more resiliency than a typical pole. We’re looking at redesigns of some of the traditional T&D areas within the company. So, there are opportunities for adding resilience in and we are looking to take advantage of those working by closely with Walt Higgins who is the new CEO down in PREPA.
Bill Loveless: With the – some say that these hurricanes are becoming much more intense because of climate change. I mean do you anticipate as a guy that here at DOE that oversees electric utility or electric power policy that this is something you need to take into consideration more as you look for ways of ensuring resilience.
Bruce Walker: These are all hazards approach. So, we look at all things from physical, cyber, weather events to work with industry to help inform our R&D moving forward. So, again with this all hazards approach that we’ve got lots of different angles that we approach this from. But clearly we will see more hurricanes as years go on just like we’ll see more cyber and physical threat. So, we continue to be prepared and work with industry to work the solutions out ahead of time.
Bill Loveless: You mentioned the national labs and the 3D poles that are printing at Oak Ridge. What else is going on in the labs right now that might be particularly exciting in terms of opportunities to address resilience, reliability, these sorts of issues?
Bruce Walker: We’ve got a number of project working in labs, probably most notably it ties back to Puerto Rico. We’re building a very unique and very sophisticated model for Puerto Rico, one that can be used as a planning tool to help design – optimally design the grid. But more importantly, then it will also be utilized as an operational tool with near real time monitoring that will better inform and provide situational awareness for those who actually operate the system.
- will morph into our North American model and that will incorporate near real time monitoring. As you can well imagine, this takes the effort of a number of different labs working together cohesively to bring the capabilities that they all have and to leverage some of the work that they’ve previously done in the past recognizing that as we build the interdependencies, it gets complex, the computers that we do have at the lab will be necessary to go through the _____ [00:29:04] process to help identify some of the contingency analysis that will be done as we let the models to be sophisticated from the standpoint that they’ll be able to do N minus K type analysis as opposed to traditional N minus one minus one – you know, typically done on the transmission systems.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. The super computers are a big asset that DOE has to offer for this and for so many other situations across the country. You talked with this model too and I think I’ve read where you hope that this model might point to investment opportunities for private sector. I mean how might that work? You find there --?
Bruce Walker: So, the great thing about the model is, you have the opportunity to take the real time data and analyze where there are vulnerabilities on the system. So, when you do these contingency planning, you can identify where investments could be made. So, things like megawatt scale storage that can help control frequency. So, those are the type of investments that once we have the model, we’ll be able to identify where we can make investments that will further add resiliency into the grid and recognizing that the interdependencies are greater today than they’ve ever been in the past, we anticipate that we’ll be able to work across the oil and natural gas as well as electric sector to look at things like physical security and identify and understand where some vulnerable points are and then sure them up.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, how soon might this model be done?
Bruce Walker: We’re looking that this model will be done within a two year window, the North American model. The Puerto Rico model is going through it paces right now and should be done within the next month.
Bill Loveless: Interesting. And this will be something to be talking to industry a lot about as you –
Bruce Walker: Industry is actually involved with it. So, we’ve got the number of people who are on the technical advisory committee that was established by PREPA’s board working with us on that. So, Sanjay Bose from Con Ed for instance working very closely with us with us as we build the model to ensure that. It makes sense for the operators of PREPA.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. What do you hope for – what are some of your goals this year? What's on your checklist, what do you need to get done this year?
Bruce Walker: We are focused on a number of different things. Number one, working very closely with the Department of Defense, MMSA and DHS to have a better understanding and a more in-depth understanding of the defense critical electric infrastructure. It’s probably the biggest and most important goal. And that really cuts across 16 sectors and ensures that we have the best plan in place to make sure that those 16 sectors are available when necessary to, again, really focus on public health and safety and the national security of the United States.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, again, that emphasis now on the national security.
Bruce Walker: We don’t spend a day not looking at national security.
Bill Loveless: Bruce Walker, thank you very much for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Bruce Walker: Thank you.
Bill Loveless: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. If you have a moment, give us a rating on our favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think. We look forward to your feedback, including your suggestions or topics and guests. And for more information on the Center on Global Energy Policy, go to our website at energypolicy.columbia.edu and follow us on social media at ColumbiaUEnergy. For the Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll be back again next week with another conversation.