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How would utilities and state agencies respond to a massive blackout or grid failure to hit Wisconsin? That question was discussed at a national energy infrastructure security summit held July 20-22, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

As part of the Electric Infrastructure Security (EIS) Summit VI held at the U.S. Capitol, some of Wisconsin’s top utility, emergency management and homeland security officials were invited to discuss Wisconsin’s plans to such events. Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin adjutant general and Wisconsin’s Homeland Security Advisor, chaired the panel on opportunities and challenges facing Wisconsin. Joining him were Wisconsin Emergency Management Administrator Brian Satula; Mike Huebsch, commissioner with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission; and David Wojtczak with American Transmission Company (ATC).

Dunbar discussed the risks associated with cyber-attacks for the nation and the electrical power grid. In Wisconsin, the state coordinates with the private sector to develop a cyber annex to the Wisconsin Emergency Response Plan.

“State government has a clear responsibility to protect state networks and respond to cyber incidents,” Dunbar said. “The Cyber Annex describes essential state requirements and tasks that are a priority in the event of a cyber disruption.”

The panel also discussed what would happen during “Black Sky Days,” which are defined as extraordinary and hazardous catastrophes in the electric power grid. Those events provide not only incredible challenges for the utility industry, but also for public safety officials.

“In Wisconsin, we have identified in our Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) two such events that could lead to Black Sky Days,” Satula said. “The first would be a cyber-attack on public infrastructure that would result in a downed power grid. The second would be a long-term power outage during the winter. Either would cause incredible challenges such as the need for mass evacuations and sheltering, and loss of other critical infrastructure such as water, fuel, and communications.”

Satula said the state has also been working with the private sector on a comprehensive response system that focuses on initial disaster priorities for the first 72 hours of an event. That would include stabilizing and restoring essential infrastructure. He said it is important to have business and private sector integrated in the planning process to ensure they are part of emergency operations centers when a Black Sky or a Gray Sky Day occurs, and that workers have credentials for incident access and involvement in long term recovery operations.

David Wojtczak presented on ATC’s work with Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) and the Wisconsin National Guard to prepare for Black Sky events.

“The joint cooperation of WEM/Wisconsin National Guard with ATC and other electric utilities sets the stage for better preparedness and synergistic use of emergency resources to assist in restoring the grid,” Wojtczak said. “The meetings we have had to date have been very helpful in identifying ways in which we can work together to protect our citizens and to restore vital services.”

As the grid evolves, Huebsch said, it’s crucial for regulators and utility leaders to understand the policy, as well as legal and economic issues associated with protecting and strengthening the grid.

“Wisconsin has taken important steps to protect its resources and facilities in order to ensure reliability,” Huebsch said, “and the panel conveyed more about the lessons learned in that process.”

The EIS Summit is an international event for senior government and industry officials to review and assess the power grid security around the world. Participants included officials from state and federal agencies, energy and private sector and members of Congress. This year’s theme of “whole community collaboration” focused on the ongoing coordination between utilities and government partners for emergency support and response.