Risks for Northwest electric and natural gas utilities are getting bigger and scarier: raging wildfires, black hat hackers, devastating ice storms, geomagnetic disturbances, mega-earthquakes and even volcanoes.

"It's a real rogue's gallery" of threats, Clearing Up Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Mark Ohrenschall said while introducing an April 15 grid resiliency panel hosted by NewsData and featuring Michelle Cathcart, BPA's VP of transmission system operations; Mitch Colburn, Idaho Power's VP of planning, engineering and construction; Scott Corwin, executive director of Northwest Public Power Association; and Letha Tawney, an Oregon PUC commissioner.

Cathcart noted that resiliency and reliability are fraternal twins: both are about keeping the lights on, but in critically different circumstances.

While reliability focuses on the grid's day-to-day operations in normal conditions, resiliency is about big catastrophic events, although the differences are not precisely clear, Corwin observed.

"You know something in our industry's complex and evolving when you have folks trying to debate the definition of it when we're trying to discuss it," he said.

Coburn said that while smart grids and other technologies are increasingly important to grid resiliency, the proliferation of connected devices introduces potential new cybersecurity risks and other vulnerabilities.

The most important piece of resiliency, though, is people—on both sides of the meter, he said. "We don't have a system without people operating and planning the system."

The resource adequacy initiative underway by the Northwest Power Pool is an example of how people staring at spreadsheets and talking over video conferences contribute to a more resilient grid.

"Our ability to maintain reliability through the current pandemic has been an example of our resilience," Cathcart said.

What is increasingly clear is that the electric power industry has to look beyond outage map statistics when thinking about resiliency, she said.

In their resiliency planning, utilities should also consider how and which ratepayers are affected by catastrophic events, as well as more routine outages, OPUC's Tawney said.

"It is far more devastating to a household that's already experiencing food insecurity to lose a fridge full of groceries" during a power outage, she said.

"We have had such reliable power throughout the West that other critical sectors haven't made resiliency plans and are surprised when the energy sector takes a hit and needs to recover," Tawney said.

Losing power can cascade through infrastructure systems, causing other serious problems. During a public-safety power shut-off in October 2019 in California, hundreds of cellphone towers went dark. They had no backup power. Millions of people could not receive emergency notices or call 911 amid devastating wildfires.

A lot of resiliency work has been done already, such as cutting back trees and other vegetation from power lines for wildfire mitigation, but the power system is being stressed by emerging risks, especially from climate change, Tawney said.

Wildfire risk has become severe enough that BPA is working on a PSPS program for its transmission system, Cathcart said.

During last year's fire season, BPA de-energized a 115-kV line for the first time due to fire risk, she said.

Utilities are more resilient if they collaborate with each other and with outside partners.

"Mutual aid is to resiliency like resource sharing is to reliability," Cathcart said. "When we're able to collaborate and work together, our ability to recover from these types of events is far greater than if we try to navigate them alone."

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is that threats are constantly evolving, she said.

"Cyber risks, climate risks—we need to make sure we are prepared for the change in the risks as it happens over time," Cathcart said. "Really, our work on this front is never done."

As a public utility commissioner, Tawney said, wildfire is her greatest concern for resiliency.

"Part of the challenge is a perfect storm of rate pressure to harden infrastructure, [manage vegetation] and at same time, looking at pretty big reliability effects" from PSPS events, despite all the hardening investments, she said.

"As the climate changes under our feet, we're going to be chasing this for quite a while," Tawney said. "It keeps me up at night."

Utilities in the region are doing the hard work, "but I'm not sure the public really understands how complex this is" and that there is no simple solution, she said.

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Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.