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FERC orders NERC to develop reliability standards for geomagnetic disturbances

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on May 16 issued a final rule directing the North American Electric Reliability Corp. to develop reliability standards to protect the grid from the potential impact of geomagnetic disturbances (GMD), such as solar storms. The final rule "largely adopts" the proposed rule issued in October 2012 but gives the industry more time and flexibility, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur said.

In a joint Dec. 26 comment on the proposed rule, APPA, the Large Public Power Council, the Edison Electric Institute and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said such a directive would be premature.

The final rule requires NERC to develop and submit new GMD standards in a two-stage process. In the first stage, NERC must file, within six months of the rule taking effect, reliability standards requiring grid owners and operators to develop and implement operational procedures to mitigate GMD effects. The rule encourages implementation of the standards within six months of commission approval, FERC said. The final rule also directs NERC to conduct a vulnerability assessment and identify facilities most at risk from a severe disturbance.

In the second stage, NERC has 18 months to file standards identifying "benchmark GMD events," which define the severity of disturbances that a grid owner/operator must assess. Those standards must require owners and operators to conduct initial and continuing assessments of the potential effects of specified "benchmark GMD events" on equipment and the bulk-power system as a whole. If the assessments identify potential effects, the reliability standards should require a responsible entity to develop and implement plans to protect against instability, uncontrolled separation or cascading failures of the system.

The second-stage standards must not be limited to operational changes, FERC staff said.

In addition to extending the deadlines for NERC to file the new standards, the final rule "makes clear that the commission expects NERC to propose a multi-phased and prioritized implementation plan for the second-stage standards," Commissioner LaFleur said.

The rule gives industry and NERC the flexibility to identify technically justified benchmarks and "makes clear that the commission is not prescribing a specific technology or methodology for the second-stage standards, but rather directing industry and NERC to apply their technical expertise to develop and implement a plan to protect against instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading failures," she said.

The commission in the final rule "clarifies that it does not intend to impose ‘strict liability’ for outages caused by GMD events of unforeseen severity," LaFleur said. The commission "recognizes that our understanding of GMD is still evolving, and that reliability standards cannot be expected to protect against all GMD-induced outages."

In their comments on the proposed rule, APPA and the other trade associations voiced concern "that the commission may believe that necessary tools and refined solutions are readily available to effectively assess and mitigate the impacts of GMD events, when this is not the case." Issuing standards before the NERC task force completes its work "would not serve the industry or the electric customers they serve well and could result in commission mandates that may do more harm than good," because they would direct utilities to take actions that could have unintended adverse impacts on reliability, said APPA and the others.

The final rule will take effect 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register. —ROBERT VARELA


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