Formalizing the National Guard Role in Restoring Electrical Power

Disaster response and recovery experts are just beginning to fully assess the impacts of last year’s Hurricane Sandy, in which over four million people on the east coast lost power and hundreds of thousands had to make due without electricity for over a week while facing frigid November temperatures.

One of the most important issues that's being examined is the gasoline and kerosene shortages that plagued the Mid-Atlantic region and crippled thirsty back-up generators, putting many users -- public sector, private sector and homeowners -- back in the dark and at risk while already tired and overwhelmed first responders and hospital staffs struggled to keep the lights on and to continue their critical operations.

Indeed, with scores of fatalities and tens of billions of dollars in damage, Sandy’s terrible aftermath highlighted the growing weaknesses in the United States’ ability to ensure availability of electricity to areas where it is needed, be it through the electrical grid infrastructure or through the use of temporary measures such as large and small fixed and portable power generators.

This issue is important because electricity is vital; serving as a key interdependent resource upon which many other utilities such as phones, water, fuel distribution, sewage and the Internet are reliant. It is also needed to ensure safety at many industrial and commercial sites, such as the manufacturing and chemical processing plants critical to the New Jersey economy and the banking and finance sectors in New York.

Embarrassingly -- though perhaps not surprising for residents of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey -- the World Economic Forum recently ranked the US electrical infrastructure worse than that of several significantly poorer countries, including Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As we’ve seen many times, and with all-too-inconvenient frequency, the country’s electrical infrastructure is old and vulnerable to even the smallest of storms. But these disruptions and their impacts are magnified many times during larger disasters, be they from sever weather, technical equipment failures or malicious acts such as terrorism and sabotage. While there may not be much we can do to prevent all future natural and man-made disasters, our overall resilience can be increased by having the National Guard grow its capabilities in electrical grid restoration tasks.

Part of the challenge is that our electrical power grid is owned and operated by literally thousands of collectively regulated, but nonetheless independently operated entities drawn from a broad mix of state and federal agencies, investor-owned utilities, municipally-owned utilities, cooperatives and private, independent transmission providers. And, yet, their collective output is vital to the normal functioning of our government, industry and broader society during routine and emergency operations.

Indeed, electricity consumption today accounts for 40 percent of all energy consumed in the United States. And more and more electricity is required every day to power everything from industrial machinery and hospital equipment to refrigerators, personal computers and even some vehicles. Given this dominant role of the nation's electric power grid, and with the practical fact that restoring power often precedes any effort at effective long-term recovery following a disaster, the question must be asked: should the National Guard have a more defined role in restoring this vital shared good to minimal operating levels following a disaster?

As a manpower and mobility resource, the National Guard already supports first responders and hospitals to carry out their immediate lifesaving missions. Clearing the roads and bringing food, water and fuel for back-up generators is another important part of the National Guard’s mission set following a catastrophic event.

Following Hurricane Sandy, more than 11,000 National Guard members supported relief efforts in 13 states distributing food, water and providing airlift and ground transportation resources, including evacuating hundreds of people from hospitals and using helicopters to rescue victims stranded by destroyed roads and bridges.

It would be prudent, therefore, to think about the other immediate missions that could accelerate restoration and recovery of vital systems following a Sandy-level tragedy. Helping utility companies to get power back online is a natural complementary skill set, and one that can enable the rest of the response and recovery to happen more efficiently and effectively.

A properly working electrical grid is the greatest enabler of a whole host of effective response and recovery missions, both those carried out by professionals as well as those undertaken by individuals and aid groups. Since the National Guard is in many ways the best enabler of mobility and access during and after an event, it stands to reason that better coordination of these two essential elements ought to be working closer together in a more coordinated fashion to improve the overall outcome for everyone involved.

In fact, National Guard support to power restoration is already occurring at a nascent and somewhat ad-hoc scale, with some 600 soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division having been deployed to help out power utilities in the wake of Sandy by identifying downed power lines and properly marking them so that members of the public are not endangered as the repair process moved forward.

But perhaps most importantly, allocating soldiers to this mission freed up utility employees to do the more involved and sophisticated technical work of utility repair. In a less formal but nonetheless emblematic example, some 150 National Guard members reportedly hand-carried fuel up 13 flights of stairs to a Manhattan hospital’s roof-top generator.

Imagine how much more impactful the National Guard could be with a bit of training and advanced planning for this crucial mission of supporting power restoration by matching prioritization lists for clearing roads with the needs of the power companies; providing transportation (and perimeter security (if required) for repair crews; and perhaps even facilitating the enhanced use of diagnostics about power flow and usage enabled by the evolving smart grid.

Such opportunities to fulfill such a critical role ought to be integrated into the National Guard’s mission set so that their maximum potential as a true force multiplier in restoring what is often quite literally life-saving power to all those in need can be utilized.

This article first appeared in Homeland Security Today,

Mr. Barrett and Mr. Thorne are both Lexington Institute Adjunct Fellows. This article was based on their study, Ensuring the Resilience of the U.S. Electric Grid,