GAO Report: Opportunities Exist for DOE to Better Support Utilities in Improving Resilience to Hurricanes

Hurricanes are a leading cause of major power outages in the U.S., impacting millions of customers in recent years. Utilities in hurricane-affected states have invested in ways to better equip their grids to withstand and rapidly recover from hurricanes. For example, some utilities have elevated equipment to protect grid infrastructure from flooding.
The Department of Energy and its National Laboratories are developing planning tools, such as metrics to track grid resilience. However, we recommended that DOE create a plan to better guide these efforts and to better inform utilities about available resources at its National Labs.
Since 2012, utilities have taken steps to improve grid resilience to severe hurricanes, such as (1) implementing storm hardening measures to enable the grid to better withstand the effects of hurricanes; (2) adopting technologies to enhance operational capacity and help quickly restore service following disruptions; and (3) participating in mutual aid programs with other utilities and training and planning exercises. For example, utilities have implemented storm hardening measures that include elevating facilities and constructing flood walls to protect against storm surges. Utilities have also adopted technologies that enhance communication capabilities and monitor systems to detect, locate, and repair sources of disruptions. However, these utilities reported challenges justifying grid resilience investments to obtain regulatory approval, and some utilities have limited resources to pursue such enhancements.
Various federal agencies can provide funding for efforts to enhance grid resilience to hurricanes, including the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, eligibility for most federal funding for grid resilience, including some USDA and FEMA funding, is limited to publicly owned utilities and state, tribal, and local governments. The Department of Energy (DOE) does not provide direct funding for grid resilience improvements, but it has efforts under way, including through its National Laboratories, to provide technical assistance and promote research and collaboration with utilities. DOE has also initiated preliminary efforts to develop tools for resilience planning, including resilience metrics and other tools such as a framework for planning, but DOE does not have a plan to guide these efforts. Without a plan to guide DOE efforts to develop tools for resilience planning, utilities may continue to face challenges justifying resilience investments. In addition, DOE lacks a formal mechanism to inform utilities about the efforts of its National Laboratories. Such a mechanism would help utilities leverage existing resources for improving grid resilience to hurricanes.
Hurricanes pose significant threats to the electricity grid in some U.S. coastal areas and territories and are a leading cause of major power outages. In recent years, hurricanes have impacted millions of customers in these areas. Adoption of technologies and other measures could improve the resilience of the grid so that it is better able to withstand and rapidly recover from severe weather; this could help mitigate the effects of hurricanes.
This report examines (1) measures utilities in selected states have adopted to enhance grid resilience following major hurricanes since 2012 and any challenges utilities face funding such measures; and (2) federal efforts to support the adoption of measures to enhance grid resilience to hurricanes and any opportunities that exist to improve these efforts. For this report, GAO assessed agency and industry actions; reviewed relevant reports, policies, and documents; and interviewed federal, industry, and local officials.
GAO recommends that DOE (1) establish a plan to guide its efforts to develop tools for resilience planning, and (2) develop a mechanism to better inform utilities about grid resilience efforts at the National Laboratories. DOE agreed in principle with these recommendations, but its proposed actions do not fully address GAO's concerns.
Full report can be found here >>

Climate Change Is Expected to Have Far-reaching Effects and DOE and FERC Should Take Actions

Climate change is expected to affect every aspect of the electricity grid—from generation, transmission, and distribution, to demand for electricity. For example, more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may diminish hydroelectricity in some areas, and increasing wildfires may damage transmission lines.
We testified about how the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could enhance grid resilience. We recommended that DOE develop a strategy for doing so and coordinate efforts within the department, and that FERC assess grid risks and plan how to promote resilience.
Climate change is expected to have far-reaching effects on the electricity grid that could cost billions and could affect every aspect of the grid from generation, transmission, and distribution to demand for electricity, according to several reports GAO reviewed. The type and extent of these effects on the grid will vary by geographic location and other factors. For example, reports GAO reviewed stated that more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may adversely affect hydroelectricity generation in Alaska and the Northwest and Southwest regions of the United States. Further, transmission capacity may be reduced or distribution lines damaged during increasing wildfire activity in some regions due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions. Moreover, climate change effects on the grid could cost utilities and customers billions, including the costs of power outages and infrastructure damage.
Since 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have taken actions to enhance the resilience of the grid. For example, in 2015, DOE established a partnership with 18 utilities to plan for climate change. In 2018, FERC collected information from grid operators on grid resilience and their risks to hazards such as extreme weather. Nevertheless, opportunities exist for DOE and FERC to take additional actions to enhance grid resilience to climate change. For example, DOE identified climate change as a risk to energy infrastructure, including the grid, but it does not have an overall strategy to guide its efforts. GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework states that federal efforts can focus on risk reduction by creating resilience goals and linking those goals to an overarching strategy. Developing and implementing a department-wide strategy that defines goals and measures progress could help prioritize DOE's climate resilience efforts to ensure that resources are targeted effectively. Regarding FERC, it has not taken steps to identify or assess climate change risks to the grid and, therefore, is not well positioned to determine the actions needed to enhance resilience. Risk management involves identifying and assessing risks to understand the likelihood of impacts and their associated consequences. By doing so, FERC could then plan and implement appropriate actions to respond to the risks and achieve its objective of promoting resilience.
According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, changes in the earth's climate are under way and expected to increase, posing risks to the electricity grid that may affect the nation's economic and national security. Annual costs of weather-related power outages total billions of dollars and may increase with climate change, although resilience investments could help address potential effects, according to the research program. Private companies own most of the electricity grid, but the federal government plays a significant role in promoting grid resilience—the ability to adapt to changing conditions; withstand potentially disruptive events; and, if disrupted, to rapidly recover. DOE, the lead agency for grid resilience efforts, conducts research and provides information and technical assistance to industry. FERC reviews mandatory grid reliability standards.
This testimony summarizes GAO's report on grid resilience to climate change. Specifically, the testimony discusses (1) potential climate change effects on the electricity grid; and (2) actions DOE and FERC have taken since 2014 to enhance electricity grid resilience to climate change effects, and additional actions these agencies could take. GAO reviewed reports and interviewed agency officials and 55 relevant stakeholders.