Report Warns Federal Agencies Should Act to Limit Climate Change Damage to Nation’s Energy Grid

GAO report found Energy Department did not develop a resilience plan despite identifying climate change as a risk to energy infrastructure.
March 11, 2021

A federal report warned that the Energy Department needs to develop a strategy to limit the damage climate change impacts will have on the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The Government Accountability Office report found that the Department of Energy should develop a department-wide strategy to enhance grid resilience to climate change to protect the nation’s electrical grid, and DOE’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should identify and assess climate change risks to the grid and find out how to best address those risks.

Most of the electric grid in the U.S. is made up of privately owned companies, but the federal government plays a large role in promoting grid resilience, the ability to adapt to events that could disrupt power transmission.

FERC regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, oil and natural gas and also reviews and approves standards developed by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the federal organization responsible for developing and enforcing reliability standards for electrical grid operators. FERC can also provide financial incentives to encourage power companies to adopt FERC recommendations.

The report said the DOE and FERC should use their powers to address climate change vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid that could potentially affect the nation’s economic and national security.

“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,” the report stated.

Both the DOE and FERC have taken some steps to identify climate change risks in the past but have not fully identified those risks or subsequent responses, leaving the electrical grid vulnerable to more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events.

Most of the DOE’s climate actions occurred during the Obama administration, when it began supporting climate change research at several national laboratories and provided information and technical assistance on grid modernization.

FERC in 2018 requested information from grid operators to find out if more needed to be done by the commission and independent operators to increase resilience in the system.

Regional electrical grid organizations like Indiana’s grid operator, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, sent in their suggestions soon after.

“MISO views resilience beyond just the ability to respond to events, but also the ability to assess and respond to changes in the nature of ‘events’ that are the result of the transformative industry changes in fuel economics, environmental regulations, technology, customer preferences and State policies,” the organization wrote.

MISO said it took steps like transmission planning, preparation drills, gas-electric coordination enhancements and other reliability initiatives to ensure it did not face any imminent reliability or resilience issues.

MISO also suggested that FERC could play a greater role in resilience efforts by getting the industry to talk about information technology tools, transmission planning and inter-regional operations.

FERC, through the North American Electric Reliability Corp., also assessed grid vulnerabilities for some facilities in two 2019 reports.

Despite this and other feedback from affected organizations, FERC did not conduct a nationwide assessment of grid vulnerabilities, potentially leaving weak links that could bring down major parts of regional electrical grids.

The GAO recommended that FERC update reliability standards and make statutory changes to specifically address climate change.

In February, new FERC chairman Richard Glick rescinded the 2018 FERC order establishing overall resilience measures, saying concerns about the resilience of bulk power systems should be addressed on a case-by-case and region-by-region basis.

“Addressing those individual challenges in a manner that is both effective — for the grid and the region — and consistent with our statutory authority under the FPA requires an approach that is tailored to the specific threats and circumstances in a particular region, not a one-size-fits-all solution,” the new order read. “To that end, we will continue working closely with RTOs, ISOs, and other public utilities to address grid resilience and take all appropriate actions to ensure that the electric grid remains reliable. Although today’s order marks the end of this proceeding, it is not the end of the Commission’s ongoing efforts to ensure the resilience and reliability of the bulk power system.”

FERC will hold a technical conference in June to discuss climate change issues threatening electrical reliability.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm did not respond to the GAO’s report, but she has said sweeping changes in the electrical grid may be necessary in the future.

Report Warns Federal Agencies Should Act to Limit Climate Change Damage to Nation’s Energy Grid