The Top Two Takeaways from the ACEC Environment & Energy Committee Winter Meeting

The Top Two Takeaways from the ACEC Environment & Energy Committee Winter Meeting

Each year when members of the ACEC Environment & Energy Committee get together for the annual winter meeting, the agenda is set based on what members of the committee see as the biggest issues facing their industry. It’s always enlightening to look at one year’s agenda compared to the last—some of the issues that we’re interested in discussing are fairly persistent, and others seem to crop up overnight. At this year’s winter meeting, one of each comprised our biggest discussion points.

Implications of SCOTUS’s Stay of the Clean Power Plan

Our meeting this year took place just over 24 hours after the Supreme Court announced its stay of the Clean Power Plan. This was a topic of discussion at our meeting last year, as well, but we couldn’t have anticipated that our meeting this year would align so fortuitously with this political development. Many in the energy sector have been wondering what this stay is going to mean for our reliance on coal and our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint.

We had a great deal of information presented regarding the ramifications of the stay. Here’s what I learned about what’s happening next:

  • Oral arguments to the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals are scheduled for June 2 of this year. Until that point, and perhaps after, implementation of the regulations under the plan has been halted.
  • The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied to stay the plan back in January. Depending on the action they take after hearing arguments in June, and how quickly they take it, further appeals could be heard as soon as this fall. While there hasn’t been an official comment from the Supreme Court, the implication was that five justices could overturn the rule or remand it for revision. This meeting also took place just 48 hours before the passing of Justice Scalia, which some observers feel reduces the chance of SCOTUS overturning the rule altogether. Either way, it’s doubtful that the appeals process will be over by the time the next President takes office.

Regardless of the regulations, though, the outlook for more affordable, responsible energy production is still good. Increased state regulations, new business models, and a focus on switching from coal to natural gas are all on the rise, and will likely continue to increase despite whether or not the EPA’s rule stands. The caveat is that the CPP’s goals for emission reduction were fairly aggressive, and without it, reaching the same level of reduction across the national board isn’t likely.

One of the presentations at our meeting discussed the increased investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure. These investments have been climbing consistently over the past several years, partly as a result of the demand for resilient and reliable power delivery, but also of the bigger shift from coal to natural gas generation. This investment trend is also likely to continue, as even with the stay of the CPP, regulatory uncertainty is a big concern for the energy sector. In order to successfully plan and manage assets, generation companies realize they have to move in the direction of renewables and natural gas in order to keep up with whatever regulations are down the pike, even if it’s not the CPP.

Cybersecurity Crucial for Public and Private Sector

The other main point of focus was something that wasn’t honestly on most of our radars last year—the importance of cybersecurity in an increasingly digital landscape. Smart cities and utilities have quickly appeared on the horizon as a big contender in one of the main issues facing us today. Technology has the capability to redefine the way utilities deliver services while managing energy and tracking consumption in a way we hadn’t previously been able to do.  However, this increased reliance on technology makes it easier for anyone with a computer and basic hacking knowledge to take over or sabotage systems we rely upon for our livelihoods.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a cybersecurity campaign, encouraging legislation on the federal level and the adoption of its NIST Cybersecurity Framework for addressing cyber threats by industries of all kinds. The American Gas Association has hosted a number of webinars on control systems cybersecurity, and the American Water Works Association has also created cybersecurity guidance to assist water and wastewater utilities in implementing the Framework. For anyone looking to get started with implementing cybersecurity measures, the Framework really cuts across supply chains to recommend best practices while evolving in tandem with changes in cybersecurity threats and technologies. Using the Framework, organizations can conduct a self-assessment to determine their current cybersecurity capacity and set goals for improving upon it.

On the one hand, increasing cybersecurity measures provides a business opportunity for firms like Woodard & Curran—system developers and engineers with the skills to create preventative measures for our clients provide a valuable service. On the other hand, this evolving issue has a number of different aspects to consider in terms of best practices for hardening security systems to the highest degree possible.

With the changing legislation on cybersecurity and the uncertainty associated with the Clean Power Plan, this year’s winter meeting served to highlight some rapidly evolving issues facing our industry today and opened up pathways to continue exploring our best options for addressing them. As the state of both of these issues continues to develop, our committee will certainly keep discussing their repercussions for industry at the environment-energy nexus. I’ll report back after our next quarterly meeting, and in the meantime, look for a blog post in the next few weeks about SCADA cybersecurity, written by another one of our experts.

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