2014 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Gilbert Bindewald, Alice Lippert and Patrick Willging

Helped government authorities and power companies deliver emergency services and restore electricity following widespread natural disasters by creating critical information-sharing and assessment tools.

During natural disasters such as hurricanes, winter storms, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes, the federal government faces significant challenges in quickly assessing the full extent of electrical outages, how long communities will be without power and the assistance needed to meet emergency energy needs.

At the Department of Energy (DOE), Gilbert Bindewald, Alice Lippert and Patrick Willging addressed these challenges by developing a sophisticated situational awareness and information-sharing capability that tracks electric power outages covering more than 75 percent of the total U.S. population and monitors problems within the petroleum and natural gas networks. During emergency situations, information on the power grid is updated at least every 15 minutes, and in some cases every 10 seconds.

The DOE system, which maps energy assets and ties together various data sources into one visualization platform, provides information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies during emergency events about the damage to the energy sector within each state, when restoration is expected to occur, what response measures are being taken and what is needed in terms of restoring electric power.

“It was difficult to get a clear picture of what was going on,” said Bill Irwin, disaster program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Now we rely on the DOE as the authoritative source.”

Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 marked the system’s first full-scale test.

Patricia Hoffman, DOE’s assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, said the system, known as EAGLE-I, was able to provide detailed reports on the status of the energy infrastructure and the pace of the recovery during the devastating hurricane.

“These reports were critical to decisions by federal, state and local officials in responding to and recovering from the catastrophe,” said Hoffman. “The power outage reports gave insight to senior DOE leadership and responders that allowed them to make informed decisions, reducing both the human and economic impacts associated with the storm.”

The three DOE officials responsible for creating this information system operated in separate yet closely related ways.

Lippert helped start a federal effort to bring together a variety of stakeholders to share information and prepare energy assurance and emergency-response plans. She established the framework for sharing situational awareness of energy infrastructure during events. Bindewald worked with the DOE’s national laboratories to develop sensors for gathering real-time information about the infrastructure’s status. Willging conceived and built EAGLE-I, which gathers the multiple data feeds regarding energy infrastructure and service status.

Irwin said the Army Corps of Engineers uses the DOE system to “review the extent of power outages and to quickly determine where we need to get resources in place,” such as emergency power to hospitals, water treatment plants, shelters and police and fire stations. He said FEMA uses the system to determine areas most at risk, which helps drive decisions about the location of shelters and where to focus disaster response resources.

The system also helps determine if DOE technical experts should be sent to assist local governments and utilities in overcoming challenges in restoring electrical power systems.

Lippert, Bindewald and Willging brought different skills and experiences to the project.

Lippert spent decades studying and analyzing energy systems and their response to disruptions. She was part of an office formed after the California electricity crisis 14 years ago and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to bring together various state and federal entities to work with state energy offices, governor’s offices, state regulators, legislators and energy companies.

“She intuitively understands oil, gas and product systems and is able to estimate human impacts and produce actionable recommendations based on her experience,” said Hoffman. Bill Bryan, DOE’s deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure security and energy restoration, called Lippert “the best analyst in the business.”

Bindewald oversaw research at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to assess the capabilities of gathering and displaying the information. Bryan praised Bindewald’s “strong relationships with the national labs” and his efforts incorporating active computer models of the power grid and other systems that allow for the analysis of contingencies during emergencies—work that is still ongoing.

Willging conceived the system that would gather multiple data feeds regarding energy infrastructure and service status. He then built this system, creatively incorporating visualization and analysis tools across energy infrastructures. EAGLE-I now has 509 users from 16 departments and agencies, plus a select group of nonfederal partners, and it is utilized in 26 federal emergency operations centers.

“With this system, we can show the number of outages, what’s the damage, what’s down, what’s up and running and when things will be back online,” said Lippert. “It’s all about analytics and getting data and information in people’s hands. We provide a compilation of everything that affects the energy infrastructure.”