The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have published a new report claiming that the US electrical grid remains vulnerable to natural disasters, cyber attacks, and physical attacks, and that immediate action is needed to improve the resiliency of the country’s power system.

The United States Departments of Energy (DOE) and Homeland Security (DHS) should work more closely with utility operators and other stakeholders to improve the cyber and physical security and resilience of the country’s electrical grid in the wake of growing threats from natural disasters and the grid’s focus as the potential target for malicious attacks. These are the key recommendations from a new report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electricity Systemwhich concluded that the US electric grid remains vulnerable to a diverse array of threats that could potentially cause widespread damage and result in large-scale outages resulting in the loss of billions of dollars and cause potential loss of life.

Contributors to the report include the Committee on Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electric Power Transmission and Distribution System; the Board on Energy and Environmental Systems; the Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences; and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

The resilience of the US electricity grid has been under close scrutiny of late — though, primarily to do with the role that renewable energy plays and the declining role of stable (though dirty) energy like coal. In April, the newly appointed Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, penned a memo to his chief of staff requesting a review of the resilience and reliability of the grid. The move was not welcomed, especially its secrecy, and ever since groups have been lining up to educate Rick Perry and the Department of Energy on the actual reliability and resiliency of the US electricity grid, and the support that renewable energies in fact provide.

Specifically, in May, four groups — Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) — published and submitted reports detailing the importance and value of renewable energy sources and their contribution to protecting electricity reliability. Further, in June, a new report by Analysis Group — conducted on behalf of the Advanced Energy Economy and American Wind Energy Association — entitled Electricity Markets, Reliability, and the Evolving U.S. Power System, has concluded that the shifting nature of the US electricity sector does not endanger electric system reliability.

Recently, a draft of the report was leaked, and some of the fears that the report was going to be nothing more than a love letter to the coal industry have proven to be, thankfully, unfounded. Whether or not the leaked draft is representative of the final version, however, is a different matter.

The new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine focuses more on the grid’s resilience in the face of natural disasters and directed malicious attacks against the grid than the expected Department of Energy report. Highlighted incidents which could cause damage or outages include hurricanes, earthquakes, solar storms, cyber and physical attacks, and major operational errors, and while the authors of the report acknowledge that long-duration outages can never be truly eliminated, they nevertheless identify several steps that can be taken to make the current grid more resilient to such challenges and dangers.

“Outages of this scale leave millions of customers without power, resulting in economic damages estimated in the billions of dollars, posing serious threats to health and public safety, and also potentially compromising national security,” said M. Granger Morgan, professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the committee. “Outages caused by natural disasters are more common than one might think. While the U.S. has not been subject to a large physical assault or cyberattack, both pose serious and growing risks.”

One of the issues identified by the authors of the report is that no single entity is responsible for planning, operating, or regulating the US electricity grid, and any efforts to increase its resilience will require coordinated action between state, federal, private, and public groups. Specifically, the committee behind the report “provides several overarching recommendations to adopt a more integrated perspective across the numerous, diverse institutions responsible for the resilience of electricity system.” The committee also called for “improvements in the process of systematically envisioning and assessing plausible large-area, long-duration grid disruptions that could have major economic, social, and other adverse consequences.”

The report also calls for expanded efforts between regional and state agencies to prepare for emergency preparedness exercises. Increased investment through public and private funds in physical resources is also called for, to increase the robustness of infrastructure and to help society cope when the grid fails.