NERC Deserves Credit—And Authority

Steven Brown, Senior Associate Editor

You have to give Michehl Gent a lot of credit. If you were president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), you likely would have been tempted to disconnect your telephone, cancel all public appearances, rent some DVDs and hole up in your basement for an indefinite period of time beginning about 4:15 EDT on Aug. 14.

After all, you’re the head of the organization charged with ensuring the reliability of the North American bulk power system, and you’re watching CNN as the power system breaks down in one of the most densely populated parts of North America. No one knows what happened; everyone wants answers. And, it’s all going to land in your lap before you can change your voice mail greeting to say you’re out of the office on vacation in a remote jungle and won’t have access to phone service, e-mail or any other source of contact with the civilized world for two weeks.

Talk about a bad day at the office.

But Gent didn’t shy away from responsibility. Sure, he may not have responded personally to every interview request from every newspaper, television station or power industry trade journal (ahem), but he did take time to host a media conference call the day after the blackout to let everyone know that he was embarrassed by the event and that he was taking full responsibility. He even made it to Dallas in early September to take part in a previously scheduled panel presentation at the IEEE T&D conference. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised–and impressed–that he didn’t respectfully bow out of that speaking engagement.

This is a guy who is not only facing a crisis, but taking full responsibility for a crisis he couldn’t possibly have prevented because neither he nor his organization has been given the legal authority to do so.

And that’s the point I’ve taken 310 words to get to: NERC, or if not NERC some other entity working in close connection with NERC and the federal energy regulatory commission, needs legal authority to enforce reliability standards on the North American power grid. Currently, reliability standards are in place, but adhering to them is voluntary. There is not an entity set up to enforce, or with authority to enforce, compliance. We essentially have a legislative body with no judicial body to back it up.

And that won’t work.

According to NERC, in 2003, there were 444 operational violations by grid operators nationwide that would have resulted in $9 million worth of fines if mandatory rules had been in effect. That’s a $9 million “if.”

Simply put: Voluntary compliance doesn’t work. The very concept is laughable.

“Take a penny, leave a penny?” Who’s going to make me?

“Be kind, rewind?” No way–well… unless you’re going to charge me if I don’t.

The U.S. Congress has included language in the energy bill that would give authority to an electric reliability organization to impose penalties on users, operators or owners of the bulk power system if they violate reliability standards. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. The more important step will be getting that energy legislation passed and giving Michehl Gent and NERC the authority they need to ensure grid reliability.

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