While we often worry about maintaining power to our datacenters and plan for the potential impact of power outages and how we will deal with them almost all the plans made by datacenter operators deal with short term power failures. Long-term outages usually fall under the aegis of our disaster recovery / business continuity planning, but even that level of organization operates under the expectation that the national power grid will remain intact.
The Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) has, since the establishment of the regulatory oversight explained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, been the agency responsible for the protection of the delivery of reliable bulk energy in the US. This means primarily the backbone of energy providers; they are not tasked with oversight of regional providers.
In a somewhat convoluted process, FERC has designate another group, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to review, propose and approve new and existing standards with the goal of improving the reliability and protecting the bulk power systems within the continental US. They are not responsible for Alaska or Hawaii.
Last month, Joseph McClellan, the director of the Office of Electric Reliability of the FERC testified before congress to point out the limitations of federal policy on maintaining the reliability and availability of the nation’s electric backbone in a time when external threats are a potential problem. You can download the transcript of his testimony here.
He basically makes two points; the first is that while the current procedures and processes in place for the government and FERC to provide direction on how to meet their mandated requirements are suitable for long-term planning, they are basically useless if there is a need for a quick reaction to ongoing events.
The second is the lack of any real process in place to handle physical threats to reliability of the bulk electric providers, with specific attention to the potential damage that can be caused by EMP. He makes it quite clear that while the danger of EMP damage is a real one, and that this has been known to the government for at least a decade, that there has been little to no activity on how to address this physical threat beyond additional reports and studies identifying EMP as a potential problem. And in a typical government catch-22, they FERC can identify the problem but is limited by the scope of their authority and cannot promulgate standards for addressing this very real issue.