Mark Lauby, alumnus and NAE member, on power systems security and reliability

University of Minnesota Twin Cities alumnus and ECE graduate Mark Lauby was recently elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, class of 2020, “[f]or the development and application of techniques for electric grid reliability analysis.” Currently, Mark is senior vice president and chief engineer of North American Reliability Corporation (NERC). While enhancing and maintaining reliability of the bulk power system has been the focus of his career, he is keenly aware of the need for trained professionals who can continue the work. According to Mark, the challenges of the future are here, and we need the brightest to build the grid of the future.

Recently, we had the opportunity to connect with Mark, and learn about his professional journey, the evolution of NERC and its vision, and the changing power industry landscape in the light of current challenges.

Tell us about the arc of your career path, from graduating with your bachelor’s degree to your work with NERC 

My father worked with IBM and taught me the basics of electricity. Wanting to be an engineer, but without a true idea of what type of engineering beyond electrical, I started my academic career at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon Campus in Wausau, Wisconsin. After 2 ½ years there, I transferred to the University of Minnesota. In my junior year in 1979, I landed a position as a summer student engineer with Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy), and was placed with the Mid-Continent Area Power Pool (MAPP). A summer there, and I was hooked: power systems would be my profession. MAPP continued to employ me part-time as I finished my degree and offered a full time position after graduation. In my senior year in 1980, I met Prof. Ned Mohan who became an important supporter and advisor. In 1982, I applied to the University of Minnesota’s master’s in electrical engineering program and Ned’s advice was crucial as I learned about power systems.   

At MAPP, I was fortunate to be on the cutting edge of power system reliability analysis. It was also where I met Prof. Bruce Wollenberg, who was working with Power Technologies Inc. (PTI). Bruce moved to Minneapolis to join Control Data Corporation, and started teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. He became my advisor, and I completed my master’s thesis in 1989. I am privileged and fortunate to have had them as my professors. 

While at MAPP, I wrote a number of technical papers on system analysis, power system reliability, and analysis of transmission outage data.  My technical work was noticed by EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute), which offered me a position in their power system planning and operations department in 1987. In 1992, after developing international business in power delivery, I joined the for-profit subsidiary EPRI International. For the next 15 years, I met with electric utilities around the world. Working with research results from all of EPRI’s programs expanded my world view and technical acumen. 

However, I always wanted to return to the world of reliability and security of the bulk power system (BPS). So in 2007, I joined the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which was an organization that MAPP (now Midwest Reliability Organization) supported when I started my career. I began my journey through reliability assessments, performance analysis, reliability standards, compliance, and cyber security. In 2014, I was named senior vice president and chief engineer of NERC.

Could you tell us about NERC: its role and responsibilities, and your charge as chief engineer?

The vision for the Electric Reliability Organization Enterprise, which comprises NERC and six regional entities, is a highly reliable and secure North American bulk power system.

NERC was formed by electric utilities across North America more than 50 years ago. It was a result of lessons learned from the northeast blackout of 1965, and is dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the reliability of the interconnected bulk power system. The vision for the Electric Reliability Organization Enterprise, which comprises NERC and the six regional entities, (MRO, NPCC, RF, SERC, Texas RE, and WECC) is a highly reliable and secure North American bulk power system. Our mission is to assure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the grid. NERC is responsible for developing, adopting, and enforcing reliability standards, and performing reliability assessments of the North American interconnected systems which include the southern portion of Canada and the northern portion of Baja, Mexico.

As senior vice president and chief engineer, I am responsible for providing leadership and strategic vision for NERC’s Engineering Services, Reliability Standard development, Reliability Assessment, Performance Analysis, and Situational Analysis.

How have NERC’s responsibilities and role evolved where power generation has changed (from fossil fuels to renewables)?

The change to renewables introduces key challenges to providing a reliable and secure bulk power system, as some renewables introduce more uncertainty due to fuel, and system design/simulation challenges.

NERC’s responsibilities remain the same: a highly reliable and secure bulk power system. However, the change to renewables introduces key challenges to fulfilling these responsibilities. For example, some renewables introduce more uncertainty due to fuel, and system design/simulation challenges. Working with industry, vendors, and federal and provincial/state regulators and policy makers, these uncertainties are being addressed through improved modeling, industry guidelines, enhanced reliability standards, and, working with IEEE, new equipment standards.

Reliability assessment and performance analysis has been one of your key achievements. Your effort in the area has especially been lauded by the NAE. What is the role of such assessment and analysis in the context of the exigencies of current day power consumption (e.g.: providing good power quality for server farms)?

Read about Mark’s election as NAE member

NERC’s assessments are a high-level assessment of resource adequacy, an overview of projected electricity demand growth, and generation and transmission additions.

NERC’s Reliability Assessment and Performance Analysis group identifies areas of concern and makes recommendations for remedying them.  NERC’s assessments are a high-level assessment of resource adequacy, an overview of projected electricity demand growth, and generation and transmission additions. NERC also identifies long-term emerging issues and trends that do not necessarily pose an immediate threat to reliability and security, but will influence future bulk power system planning, development, and system analysis.  

Each year, NERC is responsible for independently assessing and reporting on the overall reliability, adequacy, and associated risks that could impact the upcoming summer and winter seasons as well as the long-term, 10-year period.  As emerging risks and potential impacts to reliability and security are identified, special assessments are conducted that provide similar technical framework and insights about the range and specific aspects of these to guide steps that may be warranted. 

By identifying and quantifying emerging reliability issues, NERC is able to provide risk-informed recommendations and support a learning environment for industry to pursue improved reliability and security performance. 

Independent, unbiased judgment of industry’s plans for maintaining electric reliability in the future is founded on solid engineering through collaborative and consensus-based assessments. By identifying and quantifying emerging reliability issues, NERC is able to provide risk-informed recommendations and support a learning environment for industry to pursue improved reliability and security performance. These recommendations, along with the associated technical analysis, provide the basis for actionable enhancements to resource and transmission planning methods, planning and operating guidelines, and NERC Reliability Standards.

In addition, NERC publishes reports that analyze the performance of the North American bulk power system. Currently, an annual review is published, the State of Reliability report, which analyzes the historical risks to the bulk power system with a view toward developing a risk-based approach to solving important BPS problems. Prior to the State of Reliability report, NERC published an annual Risk Assessment of Reliability Performance Report.

What are some critical challenges the power industry faces now versus say, 10 years ago?

It’s always a worry to forecast the future.  However, there are some key challenges facing industry:

The transformation of generating resources and fuel sources along with changes in load characteristics is creating new reliability risks, from long and short-term planning to real-time operations.

Grid Transformation: The transformation of generating resources and fuel sources along with changes in load characteristics is creating new reliability risks, from long and short-term planning to real-time operations. Public input along with the influence of regulatory and socioeconomic policies continue to drive a significant evolution in the mix of power resources. The shift away from conventional synchronous central-station generators toward a new mix of resources continues to challenge generation, and grid planners and operators. This new paradigm of the resource mix includes natural-gas-fired generation, unprecedented proportions of non-synchronous resources, including renewables and battery storage, demand response, smart and micro-grids, and other emerging technologies. Collectively, the new resources are more susceptible to energy sufficiency issues because of common mode contingencies in fuel supply whether the fuel is natural gas or inverter-based. Looking forward, consumers’ desire to decarbonize, individual provincial and states’ legislative and regulatory initiatives, expected lower production costs of new resources, and the aging of existing generation infrastructure will all alter the nature and dispatch of generation, leading to further resource and grid transformation.

Extreme natural events cause a significant proportion of major BPS impacts. Each type of event brings unique challenges from supply sufficiency, spare-parts availability, delivery, and restoration perspectives.

Extreme Natural Events: Extreme natural events (e.g., storms, wildfire) cause a significant proportion of major BPS impacts. Extreme natural events tend to be regional in nature. Natural events may affect equipment, resources, or infrastructure required to operate the BPS. Certain events are unique to areas that they impact while others may occur in any area of the BPS. Each type of event brings unique challenges from supply sufficiency, spare-parts availability, delivery, and restoration perspectives. Preparation and proactive planning of procedures and protocols are critical for utilities to assess and determine appropriate steps for both reliability and resilience.

Cyber and physical security are interdependent aspects as exploitation of one could be used to compromise the other. Resulting impacts could cause asset damage or loss of functionality and situational awareness needed to reliably operate or restore the BPS.

Security Risks: Operational security is an essential component of a highly reliable BPS. Cyber and physical security are interdependent aspects as exploitation of one could be used to compromise the other. Resulting impacts could cause asset damage or loss of functionality and situational awareness needed to reliably operate or restore the BPS. Exploitation could occur directly against equipment used to monitor, protect, and control the BPS, or indirectly through supporting systems, such as voice communications or interdependent critical infrastructure sectors and subsectors (e.g., water supply and natural gas used for electrical power generation). A coordinated cyber and physical attack scenario that is potentially targeted to occur simultaneously with an extreme natural event could further impact reliability and/or complicate recovery activities. A man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event targeted at the BPS may impact operations and result in damaged equipment that may require an extended period of time to replace.

Significant and evolving critical infrastructure sector and subsector interdependencies are not fully or accurately characterized.


Critical Infrastructure Interdependencies: Significant and evolving critical infrastructure sector (e.g., communications, water/wastewater) and subsector (e.g., oil, natural gas) interdependencies are not fully or accurately characterized. This results in incomplete information about prospective BPS response to disruptions originating from or impacting other sectors or subsectors, and resultant reliability and security implications.

How prepared are we nationally in terms of resources and security?

The power industry in North America is the only critical infrastructure that adheres to mandatory Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) cyber standards and physical security reliability standards. 

Industry is constantly preparing and evaluating their systems, and remains vigilant. For example, the power industry in North America is the only critical infrastructure that adheres to mandatory Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) cyber standards and physical security reliability standards. That said, cyber vulnerabilities continue to rank among the BPS risks with the highest likelihood and impact. Information technology and operational technology convergences should be recognized, and adequate levels of cyber security should be planned prospectively. 

How does distributed generation impact NERC’s objectives? 

When central generation and bulk power systems fail, distributed generation can carry forward supplying local needs until the central systems are stood up. However, it is critical to develop system designs that support the reliability and security goals of industry. 

Distributed generation, if implemented appropriately, can serve to improve reliability.  Namely, when central generation and bulk power systems fail, distributed generation can carry forward supplying local needs until the central systems are stood up. However, it is critical to develop system designs that support the reliability and security goals of industry. There are technical challenges to designing a system: that provides frequency to inverters when they are disconnected from the bulk power system; that responds faster in the face of reduced inertia; that supports reliability, rather than ceasing to operate or disconnects from the bulk power system when an event occurs; that reduces the attack surface from cyber threats, rather than enlarge it.

Early on, you recognized the impact of a potential workforce shortage on system reliability. Could you share some of the steps you have undertaken and/or supported as chief engineer across the power industry and academia? 

I support several programs initiated by IEEE-PES and a number of universities, such as the University of Minnesota, to bring engineering into K-12, and provide curriculum to smaller universities.

Initially, one needs to understand the scope of the problem, and then recognize who can help. With NERC continuing to put a spotlight on the issue, it has drawn attention from industry and academia. The mission of the electric power industry is both potent and compelling. IEEE-PES and a number of universities, such as the University of Minnesota, have started initiating programs to bring engineering into K-12, and robust ways to provide curriculum to smaller universities. I support a number of these programs, and have visited universities myself, to spark career interest in the electric power industry. 

What would you put down as your most prized professional achievements, thinking across your time with MAPP, EPRI, and NERC?

Being of service to the industry both in North America and the world is both satisfying and exhilarating.

Being of service to the industry both in North America and the world is both satisfying and exhilarating. The impact on people’s lives enabled through clean, affordable, safe, and reliable energy is astounding. I am proud to be a part of this delivery be it through studies, development and implementation of new technologies, transferring technology to industry, leading and influencing application of system performance standards, or identifying risks to reliability and fostering their mitigation.

As a storied alumnus and now NAE member, what advice would you share with our students (current and prospective), especially those who are interested in power systems?

The challenges of the future are big and they are here. We need the brightest to build the grid of the future!

The time is now. This is one industry where you can make a difference.  More than 400 million people in North America are depending on the grid every day. The metamorphosis of the bulk power system towards a decarbonized, distributed, and digitized future requires new ideas, fresh views, and keen insights. Don’t let anyone take your dreams and determination away. The challenges of the future are big and they are here. We need the brightest to build the grid of the future!