DC Water, Infrastructure

The Most Important Organization That You Have Never Heard About

The lights blinked out suddenly. I looked around the meeting room, looking at the doorway – perhaps someone had leaned on the light switch. Almost immediately, though, the lights went back on. I was at my first meeting of the DC Building Industry Association. The DCBIA leaders looked at each other for a moment, shrugged, and then went back to work.

Yet, what happened is fantastically important to every person in the United States – or in fact, all of North America. Apparently, a piece of equipment in the electricity distribution system failed and caused a ripple of power outages throughout the system. Significant areas of Washington, DC lost power – including the White House, several Metro stations, other residences and businesses, and for us, one of our drinking water pump stations.

What is our greatest fear in the water world? Easy answer: loss of power. When the electricity stops flowing, our pumps stop, pressure is lost, contaminants can leech into the system, the public loses an essential service, treatment of wastewater stops, and contamination can flow into our rivers, lakes and oceans.

So we prepare, like so many others. Power loss happens, usually due to extreme weather. In this instance, most of the government and commercial buildings had back-up power that kicked in quickly – and power was restored before our back-ups were exhausted.

On this day, though, the sky was blue.


Immediate questions come to mind. How could the loss of a piece of equipment cause such widespread power loss? Shouldn’t the system be designed so losing a particular piece of equipment only cause power loss to an area very near the problem? Is this like the story widely reported that a power line sagging on a tree in Ohio was connected to a black-out that blanketed much of New York City and the East Coast?

And perhaps the most important question of all: Who is responsible for trying to answer these questions and ensure the design and reliability of the power system?

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation – or NERC – that’s who!

NERC is the most important organization I had never heard of before…or at least until I learned of an opportunity to join their Board of Directors.

When I started researching NERC and its work, my interest increased, my preparation expanded and my enthusiasm for joining NERC peaked. Fortunately, after a careful process, I was elected to the Board at their meeting in February.

“Why?” some have asked. Are you not busy enough? Aren’t you a water professional?

Great questions certainly, and I needed thoughtful, strong answers for myself, my own organization, and the NERC nominating committee. How does committing to this organization make sense, given the work it will require to be a helpful Board member?

Anacostia Pumping Station

I think there is very, very strong reason for me to serve on the NERC Board formed from three realities:

1. There may be no more important issue for the water industry than the reliability of the power that enables every aspect of our operations.
2. There may be no more important issue to the power industry than the reliability of the water that enables the production of power.
3. The systems, risks and responses that help ensure the reliability of power and water are remarkably similar.

Fascinating fact 1: more water is used every year to help generate power in the United States than is delivered to all residential customers.

Fascinating fact 2: power is one of the highest costs in the water industry, and for most governments, power consumption by water utilities is by far the biggest component of their municipal power costs.

Moreover, the systems delivering power to people are remarkably parallel to the systems delivering water. Historically, we have relied on huge centralized plants to generate power or treat water, connected to far flung distribution systems to deliver service to individual customers. The system has either electrical or water pumping substations that keep the service flowing and requires a complex array of people and equipment to maintain that service. Small outages or problems in one part of the system can have catastrophic consequence after a long chain of linked events.

And today, we are determining how to maintain the broader system while enabling a “distributed” model. We still want major regional power and water reclamation plants – yet also want to disperse power generation to solar cells and wind farms, or green roofs and on-site stormwater reuse. How do we encourage people to participate in the distributed system at their homes and business, but also make sure the regional backbone of facilities is still there, at the ready, when the sun is not shining, the wind not blowing, or the rain not falling? The parallels are amazing.

 BP Graphic

Yet in the power world there is a enormously important distinction – the entire grid is connected! In most cases, water systems are limited in geography to a municipality, perhaps a county region, and in the largest of systems, to a river watershed. For power, though, the entire North American continent is connected. I need to learn more about this attribute, but it certainly seems the stakes are high!

In this context, NERC is a remarkable entity. While it is a private, non-profit organization – it has been enabled by the Energy Policy Act and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to establish standards that both require certain practices to increase the reliability of energy delivery in the grid, and require baseline procedures to identify risks and require response mechanisms. NERC is a regulatory and compliance body over the management of energy distribution. And, it is overseeing perhaps the world’s largest asset management system over a power grid of mammoth scale and importance.

All centered on the core value of ensuring the reliability of the grid. As NERC officials like to say, we “keep the lights on.”

And NERC helps keep the power flowing to water treatment plants, pump stations and wastewater systems on which every living organism relies every day!

So, I am honored and delighted to have joined the NERC Board and have already begun learning both from an impressive group of Directors and an equally impressive professional staff. I hope I can bring to the table what I have learned about reliability in the water sector, and I know I will learn much from what the power sector has to offer. I will report more about what I learn in the days ahead!

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