Legislative Report - Energy Assurance Exercise - 7/11/2011

A few weeks ago, at the same time Vermont was experiencing its own weather emergency, I was privileged to take part as a member of the Vermont legislature in the Northeast Regional Energy Assurance Exercise along with two members of the Vermont Department of Public Service and a representative of the Vermont Emergency Management Agency. 

The conference was organized by the U.S. Department of Energy to review and apply state emergency management plans to ensure the availibility of energy resources during crisis events.  Twelve states participated, sending representatives from state government and energy related industry groups.  Federal government representatives from the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, Transportation, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Argonne National Laboratories also attended. 

Prior to the exercise, participants were provided with a descriptive scenario setting up the conditions for the exercise that would develop over a day and a half.   In this imaginary scenario, a major oil refinery in the Virgin Islands had been shut down by the first hurricane of the season.  A second hurricane, Bret, had just made landfall in North Carolina and had taken out power to 5 million residents of NC and SC.  Gasoline shortages had caused the price of diesel fuel to approach $5/gallon causing an independent truckers’ strike in the south.  In preparation for the exercise, each state’s Energy Assurance Coordinator was asked to summarize their state’s emergency management plans with respect to a set of questions that would be considered at the conference.

Three extraordinary event scenarios were considered as part of the exercise, each building on the preceding scenario.  The first scenario projected hurricane Bret to continue moving up the east coast.  After NOAA and the U.S. Energy department gave a detailed description of the scenario, the attendees were divided by states into six discussion groups in which interdependencies, responsibilities and responses to the scenario were considered, including wide area power disruptions, seaport closures, fuel transport disruptions, and the ripple effects induced by those conditions.  Participants discussed their evaluation of the resulting impacts and their proposed responses.

The second scenario built on the first one.  In this scenario, a geomagnetic solar storm had been detected and was heading toward earth.  Lead time from detection to impingement on earth’s atmosphere for this type of solar weather is between 20 and 90 hours.  NOAA and Argonne Labs scientists briefed the conference on the potential effects on telecommunications and power distribution.  Not only would satellite-based communications be affected, but airline travel, rail travel, manufacturing, and cellular communications could be as well.  Ground-induced currents could literally fry the huge transformers used by utilities for power distribution.  Current fluctuations in lines could also develop that could impact electronic devices.   

The third scenario was the extension of the truckers’ strike nationwide to demand suspension of state taxes on gasoline.  The obvious effect of fuel delivery disruptions was further exacerbated by the blockading of bridges and tunnels by the truckers.  Other impacts on construction, food transport and spoilage, and agriculture were also considered.

The exercise included a lot of discussion, brainstorming and reassessment of current emergency plans.  The exchange of ideas among the states provided valuable insights for all the participants.  Each state delegation was assigned the task of developing an after-action report that includes lessons learned and proposed changes to their plans, and I expect to be involved in these discussions as well in the coming weeks.  With effective planning, Vermont will be ready to handle and recover from a wide variety of possible emergencies.