Grid Security Exercises Prove Communication is Key

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Grid Security Exercises Prove Communication is Key

April 22, 2022

The power of communication and coordination was clear in NERC’s biennial security exercise, GridEx VI, which was held November 16-18, 2021. Two different exercises were held: The Executive Tabletop for senior government leaders and industry executives, and Distributed Play for utility organizations across North America.

This event was captured in a detailed report released in April by NERC and E-ISAC, the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

Over 88 Company leaders and Government entities participated in the Executive Tabletop Scenario, while 293 utility organizations participated in the Distributed Play Scenario.

The Executive Tabletop simulated a multi-day attack that split the Western Interconnection into two parts, followed by further attacks on electrical and natural gas infrastructure. Telecommunications and wind generation were also affected. Complicating matters were the many defense-critical customers put at risk by the attack.

The Distributed Play Scenario placed players in a difficult scenario where a nation-state actor attacked the grid with cyber and physical attacks over a two-day period. Using this baseline, organizations received information from experts and were encouraged to modify the scenario to meet their unique operational needs.

Some unique scenarios that Distributed Play players met head-on included pipeline and LNG facility attacks, generation unit outages, and social media threats.

Executive Tabletop participants found that communication of operational status was difficult during the exercise, particularly because of the large number of stakeholders that were looking for information. NERC and Regional Entities can address this by reviewing their crisis management plans and determining their capabilities in extreme situations like this one.

Another challenge to be addressed was what sensitive security information can be shared during a crisis. Without thorough planning, it is difficult to know what can safely be shared and with who!

Increased coordination between different utility industries was also seen as crucial for moving forward. Natural gas, telecom companies, and electricity providers can plan for operational issues that overlap between them or snowball in a major crisis.

For the Distributed Play participants, surveys showed that they were pleased with the experience and the tools that were provided by the GridEx Team. This provided them a compelling simulation that was realistic and engaging. One critique for future use was that planning materials, while excellent, were published late, therefore making their effective use harder.

Notably, NERC participated in Distributed Play, providing an excellent real-time experience for their team. NERC plans to expand their exercise participation in future editions of GridEx.

Overall, the experience taught participants that being on the same page with others and planning on many fronts are crucial for crisis scenarios. With the conflict in Ukraine and other global threats, the reason for these exercises could not be clearer:

“Because nearly 400 million citizens in North America are counting on us!”

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