March 24, 2021
Written by Sarah Ruen Blanchard, FRI Advisory Board member
The utility industry has long prioritized safety and reliability, but the frequency and duration of emergency events that we must manage through today are unlike those of the past. We can reasonably expect there will be hurricanes in Florida and blizzards in the Midwest, but Hurricane Sandy (2012) in New York, the Camp Fire in California (2018), the Derecho in Iowa (2020), and Winter Storm Uri in Texas (2021) were unprecedented events that devastated communities and crippled energy infrastructure.
As a utility regulatory manager, I found myself in recent months peeling open my Emergency Management textbook from grad school. The first line reads as a reminder that we, as humans, will always be unable to control nature:
“There is no country, no community, and no person immune to the impacts of disasters.”
(Haddow & Bullock, 2006)
Each disaster commands a unique response, but there are principles of emergency management that remain sound in any such event, if you have the training and resolve to employ them. Regulated utilities’ emergency response activities simultaneously, and uniquely, take two tracks: 1) event recovery through restoration; and 2) event communication and coordination with internal employees, governmental entities and regulators. I would posit that most of the utility front-line and technical personnel have the appropriate preparation and response training, but regulatory personnel may or may not. I have observed that there are two streams of emergency management opportunities for regulatory personnel to consider as they seek to bolster their skills:
Planning, Preparedness, and Mitigation
Utilities often employ emergency management specialists, conduct table-top, functional and full-scale exercises, and utilize established emergency dispatch and operations protocols as part of their efforts to plan for the unexpected. The activity of Planning, Preparedness, and Mitigation in advance of events rightly resides with the operational business units who have the technical expertise for performing these functions.
Utility regulatory staff, and regulators, should certainly be involved in the Preparedness segment of these activities. Personally, I have found great value in actively participating in the GridEx exercises for testing utilities’ response capabilities when there are events that impact the grid. Information sharing and public-private collaboration are day-to-day essential regulatory functions, and their importance is only heightened during an event.
Response, Recovery, and Communications
Response to events that impact utility infrastructure is largely a set of technical and operational activities to enable service restoration to take place as safely and as quickly as possible. Regulatory staff’s role in Response is primarily tied to Communications—ensuring timely regulatory notification requirements are met and participating in intra-organization communications to enable necessary external information sharing, including regarding mutual aid support and government resources being deployed. Additionally, during the Response period, regulatory communications at the utility are often focused on ensuring appropriate outflow of information (restoration status, etc.); while Recovery period communications may pivot to utility regulatory staff facilitating an exchange of information about utility, regulatory, governmental, and non-profit resources for assisting communities.
As we complete the Recovery phase, we must take time to assess any lessons learned that are unique to regulatory communications; and document or adopt operating procedures to reflect best practices and ensure any Preparedness and Communications challenges can be overcome in advance of future events.
Many of us may have not had extensive emergency management training, but perhaps we will.
Sarah Ruen Blanchard is Manager of Regulatory Relations & Policy at Alliant Energy. The Edison Electric Institute recently awarded Alliant Energy its 2020 Emergency Response Award. POV pieces are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of FRI or the University of Missouri.