Electricity Grid Resilience: Climate Change Is Expected to Have Far-reaching Effects and DOE and FERC Should Take Actions

What GAO Found

Climate change is expected to have far-reaching effects on the electricity grid that could cost billions and could affect every aspect of the grid from generation, transmission, and distribution to demand for electricity, according to several reports GAO reviewed. The type and extent of these effects on the grid will vary by geographic location and other factors. For example, reports GAO reviewed stated that more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may adversely affect hydroelectricity generation in Alaska and the Northwest and Southwest regions of the United States. Further, transmission capacity may be reduced or distribution lines damaged during increasing wildfire activity in some regions due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions. Moreover, climate change effects on the grid could cost utilities and customers billions, including the costs of power outages and infrastructure damage.

Examples of Climate Change Effects on the Electricity Grid

Since 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have taken actions to enhance the resilience of the grid. For example, in 2015, DOE established a partnership with 18 utilities to plan for climate change. In 2018, FERC collected information from grid operators on grid resilience and their risks to hazards such as extreme weather. Nevertheless, opportunities exist for DOE and FERC to take additional actions to enhance grid resilience to climate change. For example, DOE identified climate change as a risk to energy infrastructure, including the grid, but it does not have an overall strategy to guide its efforts. GAO’s Disaster Resilience Framework states that federal efforts can focus on risk reduction by creating resilience goals and linking those goals to an overarching strategy. Developing and implementing a department-wide strategy that defines goals and measures progress could help prioritize DOE’s climate resilience efforts to ensure that resources are targeted effectively. Regarding FERC, it has not taken steps to identify or assess climate change risks to the grid and, therefore, is not well positioned to determine the actions needed to enhance resilience. Risk management involves identifying and assessing risks to understand the likelihood of impacts and their associated consequences. By doing so, FERC could then plan and implement appropriate actions to respond to the risks and achieve its objective of promoting resilience.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, changes in the earth’s climate are under way and expected to increase, posing risks to the electricity grid that may affect the nation’s economic and national security. Annual costs of weather-related power outages total billions of dollars and may increase with climate change, although resilience investments could help address potential effects, according to the research program. Private companies own most of the electricity grid, but the federal government plays a significant role in promoting grid resilience—the ability to adapt to changing conditions; withstand potentially disruptive events; and, if disrupted, to rapidly recover. DOE, the lead agency for grid resilience efforts, conducts research and provides information and technical assistance to industry. FERC reviews mandatory grid reliability standards.

This testimony summarizes GAO’s report on grid resilience to climate change. Specifically, the testimony discusses (1) potential climate change effects on the electricity grid; and (2) actions DOE and FERC have taken since 2014 to enhance electricity grid resilience to climate change effects, and additional actions these agencies could take. GAO reviewed reports and interviewed agency officials and 55 relevant stakeholders.

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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has established a process to determine basic allowance for housing (BAH) rates, which help cover the cost of suitable housing in the private sector for servicemembers. However, DOD has not always collected rental data on the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for certain locations and housing types. GAO analysis found that 44 percent (788 of 1,806) of locations and housing types had fewer than the minimum sample-size target. Until DOD develops ways to increase its sample size, it will risk providing housing cost compensation that does not accurately represent the cost of suitable housing for servicemembers. DOD followed congressional requirements for calculating BAH reductions and payments to privatized housing projects. However, while the 2019 congressionally mandated payments lessened the financial effects of BAH reductions, as intended, they did not do so commensurate with the amount of the BAH reduction. GAO found that privatized housing projects received payments that were either over or under the amount of revenue lost from reductions made to BAH, in some cases by $1 million or more. (see figure) Number of Privatized Housing Projects and Amounts That Congressionally Mandated Payments Were Above or Below the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) Reduction Estimate (in 2019) These distortions occurred because the legal requirements for calculating the BAH reduction and the congressionally mandated payments differ. Specifically, the law requires that the BAH reduction be a set dollar amount, regardless of location, while payments to privatized housing projects are required to differ by location. This required method of calculating the BAH reduction amounts is consistent with how prior reductions were calculated. According to DOD, BAH rates were reduced so that servicemembers share a portion of housing costs, and that reduction amount was the same for servicemembers with the same pay grade and dependency status, regardless of location. Until Congress takes steps to ensure congressionally mandated payment calculations are consistent with how BAH reductions are calculated, some privatized housing projects will continue to receive more or less than was intended. DOD spent about $20 billion in fiscal year 2019 on BAH—often one of the largest components of military pay. BAH is designed to cover a portion of servicemembers' housing rental and utility costs in the private sector. Starting in 2015, DOD reduced BAH rates so that servicemembers share a portion of housing costs. The majority of servicemembers rely on the civilian housing market, while others rely on government housing or privatized housing projects. These projects rely on BAH as a key revenue source. In 2018-2020, Congress required DOD to make payments to these projects to help offset the BAH reduction. Senate Report 116-48 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's BAH process. This report evaluates, among other things, the extent to which (1) DOD established a process to determine BAH and (2) DOD's congressionally mandated payments to projects lessened the effects of BAH reductions. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed relevant guidance and other documents, analyzed key data, and interviewed cognizant DOD officials. GAO is making a matter for congressional consideration to revise statutory language to ensure payments to privatized housing projects are consistent with BAH reductions. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOD review its sampling methodology to increase sample size. DOD concurred with two recommendations. DOD also partially concurred with one recommendation, which GAO continues to believe is valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Aviation Sanitation: FDA Could Better Communicate with Airlines to Encourage Voluntary Construction Inspections of Aircraft Galleys and Lavatories
    In U.S GAO News
    Most commercial aircraft undergo voluntary inspections to ensure that galleys and lavatories are constructed and assembled to meet the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) sanitation standards, according to industry representatives. Twenty-seven percent of the inspections FDA conducted between fiscal years 2015 and 2019 found objectionable conditions. But in nearly all of these instances, the conditions identified, such as the need for additional sealant in areas where there was a gap or seam, were corrected by the airline or aircraft manufacturer during the inspection. However, some regional airline representatives told GAO that their aircraft do not receive these construction inspections, either because larger airlines with which they have contracts told them the inspections were unnecessary or because they did not believe the inspections were relevant to them. FDA provides these inspections free of charge, upon request of aircraft manufacturers or airlines, and aircraft passing inspection receive a certificate of sanitary construction. Representatives of one aircraft manufacturer said they view the certificate as beneficial because their customers see it as a guarantee that the aircraft was constructed in a way that decreases the likelihood of microbial contamination, pests, and insects. While the construction inspections are important, they are not required, and FDA does not proactively encourage airlines to request them. By developing a process for communicating directly to all U.S.-based commercial airlines, including regional airlines, to encourage them to receive construction inspections, FDA could better ensure that aircraft meet FDA sanitation standards to protect passenger health. An Airline Representative Applying Additional Sealant in Response to an FDA Inspection FDA faces several challenges in providing construction inspections and is taking steps to address these challenges. For example, the demand for inspections by manufacturers and airlines is unpredictable, and FDA inspectors are responsible for inspections at multiple locations. To help mitigate these challenges, officials we interviewed from four FDA field offices said they usually request advance notice from industry to allow the agency time to allocate the necessary resources for construction inspections. Voluntary construction inspections are the primary mechanism by which FDA oversees compliance with its required sanitation standards for the construction of aircraft galleys and lavatories. A report accompanying the House 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill included a provision for GAO to review FDA's process for ensuring proper sanitation in aircraft galleys and lavatories. This report (1) examines the extent to which aircraft are inspected to ensure compliance with FDA's sanitation standards, and (2) discusses challenges FDA faces in providing aircraft inspections and how FDA is addressing such challenges. GAO reviewed FDA guidance, interviewed FDA officials in headquarters and four selected field offices with high volumes of construction inspections, conducted site visits to meet with FDA inspectors, and interviewed representatives of selected aircraft manufacturers and airlines. GAO recommends that FDA develop a process for communicating directly with all U.S.-based commercial airlines to encourage them to request construction inspections. FDA generally agreed with our recommendation. For more information, contact Steve Morris (202) 512-3841 MorrisS@gao.gov.
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    After a 7-day trial, a federal jury in Frankfurt, Kentucky, found Prince Bixler, 41, of Lexington, Kentucky, guilty of charges related to his extensive and violent sex and drug trafficking operation that sold crack cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines throughout the Lexington area and forced young, drug-addicted women to prostitute. 
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  • Justice Department Settles with Gates Chili Central School District to Ensure Equal Access for Students with Service Animals
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  • Veterans Affairs: Use of Additional Funding for COVID-19 Relief
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) received $19.6 billion in supplemental funding—additional funding above the annual appropriation—in March 2020 to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO's analysis of VA data shows that through March 2021, VA had obligated $9.9 billion and expended $8.1 billion of the supplemental funding. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Reported Obligations and Expenditures of CARES Act and Families First Coronavirus Response Act Funding through March 2021 Note: An obligation is a definite commitment that creates a legal liability to pay, and an expenditure is the actual spending of money. The majority of the obligated supplemental funding ($8.3 billion) was obligated by VA's Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for care provided to veterans by non-VA providers, the additional costs of salaries (such as for overtime) and related expenses of VHA staff, supplies and materials, and support for homeless veterans, due to COVID-19 response. The remaining obligations included costs of VA's transition to telehealth and telework during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily through the Office of Information Technology (OIT). According to spend plan documents and department officials, VA plans to obligate its remaining $9.7 billion in funding on activities including COVID-19 testing, purchasing supplies and equipment, and distributing COVID-19 vaccines. VA mainly relies on its standard financial management processes to oversee the use of supplemental funds, including establishing new versions of standard financial codes to account for and report on use of funds through VA's financial system. VA also collected details about the use of supplemental funding, such as descriptions of the activities for which funds were obligated, that were not available in its financial system. In addition, the VA components that received the majority of the supplemental funding—VHA and OIT—set up additional processes and issued guidance specific to the use of supplemental funding, such as establishing councils to review funding requests. Why GAO Did This Study As of April 14, 2021, VA reported 224,538 cumulative veteran cases of COVID-19, and 11,366 deaths. The CARES Act and Families First Coronavirus Response Act included supplemental funding for COVID-19 relief, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, permitted VA additional flexibility to transfer these funds across the department. The CARES Act also included a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines 1) VA's obligations and expenditures of COVID-19 supplemental funding, as well as its plans to obligate remaining funds, and 2) how VA oversees the use of COVID-19 supplemental funds. GAO reviewed VA data on obligations, expenditures, and spend plans for COVID-19 supplemental funding, as well as contracting documentation and documentation on the processes and guidance VA developed to oversee the use of funds. GAO interviewed VA officials responsible for oversight of the supplemental funding, including officials from five regional networks, selected based on funding levels and geography, to gather information about their roles in overseeing the use of and accounting for supplemental funding. VA reviewed a draft of this report and provided a technical comment, which was incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Sharon M. Silas at (202) 512-7114 or silass@gao.gov.
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  • Defense Real Property: DOD-Wide Strategy Needed to Address Control Issues and Improve Reliability of Records
    In U.S GAO News
    As required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, the Department of Defense (DOD) for fiscal year 2019 underwent a financial statement audit. In the military services' full financial statement audit reports for fiscal year 2019, the independent public accountants reported serious control issues related to events that occur during the life cycle of real property, consisting of adding, disposing, reconciling, valuing, and performing physical inventory counts. These control issues affect not only the reliability of financial statement reporting but also the quality of property record data that DOD officials need to make decisions for budget and mission planning, space management, and buying versus leasing options. Further, with DOD having almost half of the government's buildings, better data could help the federal government identify opportunities to dispose of unneeded buildings and reduce lease costs, thus potentially saving it millions of dollars. DOD has not yet developed a comprehensive, department-wide strategy—an element of leading practices for enterprise-wide real property management—to address the reported real property issues. Instead, each of the military services is independently developing corrective actions to address control issues, without applying common solutions among the services or department-wide. A department-wide strategy for remediating control issues would better position DOD to develop sustainable, routine processes that help ensure accurate real property records and, ultimately, auditable information for financial reporting for the department. Additionally, a DOD-wide strategy could help the military services more effectively and efficiently address reported control issues, particularly for those categorized as DOD-wide issues. The Acting Secretary, noting that the services had not accurately accounted for DOD's buildings and structures, required existence and completeness (E&C) verifications to be performed for all real property for fiscal year 2019. Given the lack of department-wide instructions for how to carry out the requirement, the military services independently developed approaches for performing the E&C verifications. Their approaches differed in both scope (what assets were verified) and methodology (how the assets were verified), including the extent to which instructions were written. Reporting and monitoring of the results by service and department-level management also differed. Without department-wide instructions for performing the fiscal year 2019 E&C verifications, the results were not comparable among the military services. Further, DOD and the military services did not obtain the complete and consistent information needed to create a DOD real property baseline or to help ensure that the department's real property records are reliable. DOD-wide instructions would help DOD obtain complete and comparable E&C verifications results, which would help DOD achieve an auditable real property baseline and, ultimately, its objective of an unmodified (“clean”) audit opinion. DOD manages one of the federal government's largest portfolios of real property. This engagement was initiated in connection with the statutory requirement for GAO to audit the U.S. government's consolidated financial statements. DOD's uncorrected deficiencies, including those affecting real property, prevent DOD from having auditable financial statements, one of the three major impediments preventing GAO from expressing an opinion on the accrual-based consolidated financial statements of the U.S. government. This report (1) identifies the real property control issues that independent public accountants reported that may affect the ability of the military services to establish and maintain accurate and complete real property records, (2) examines the extent to which DOD had a strategy to address the control issues, and (3) assesses the extent to which DOD provided guidance for the required E&C verifications during fiscal year 2019 and how each military service implemented the directive. GAO analyzed fiscal year 2019 audit findings, reviewed key DOD documents, and interviewed DOD and military service officials. GAO is recommending that DOD (1) develop and implement an enterprise-wide strategy to remediate real property control issues and (2) issue DOD-wide instructions for the E&C verifications. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Kristen Kociolek at (202) 512-2989 or kociolekk@gao.gov.
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  • Puerto Rico: Efforts to Improve Competition for Medicaid Procurement
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Like other U.S. territories and states, Puerto Rico implements major functions of its Medicaid program by procuring services from contractors, such as the delivery of managed care services to Medicaid beneficiaries. In 2018, procurement costs represented $2.4 billion of Puerto Rico's $2.5 billion in total Medicaid expenditures. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)—the federal agency that oversees Medicaid—requires states and territories to use the same process for Medicaid procurements as they do for their non-federal procurements. However, in February 2021, GAO found that CMS has not taken steps to ensure Puerto Rico has met this requirement. Instead, CMS has relied on Puerto Rico to oversee the territory’s procurement process and to attest to its compliance. CMS officials told GAO that states and territories are in the best position to ensure compliance with their respective procurement laws. A 2019 federal indictment alleging Puerto Rico officials unlawfully steered Medicaid contracts to certain individuals has also raised questions about Puerto Rico's Medicaid procurement process, including whether this process helps ensure appropriate competition. The Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, directed Puerto Rico to publish a Medicaid procurement reform plan to combat fraud, waste, and abuse, which the territory provided to Congress in December 2020. In its procurement reform plan, Puerto Rico acknowledges the need to improve competition and outlines future initiatives and general timeframes to do so. For example, Puerto Rico notes that by August 2021, it will identify the circumstances under which the use of noncompetitive contracts is justified, as well as the factors it might consider in making this determination. By April 2021, Puerto Rico intends to identify procurement information it will make public as part of its competitive procurement process and will make such information public by the end of 2021. Such changes—if implemented as planned—could address some of the issues GAO identified in its review of eight selected Puerto Rico procurements. In its review, GAO found that Puerto Rico did not include important steps to promote competition and mitigate the risk for fraud, waste, and abuse, underscoring the need for federal oversight. GAO and others have found that competition is a cornerstone of procurement. Using competition can reduce costs, improve contractor performance, curb fraud, and promote accountability. As Puerto Rico continues to develop and carry out its planned reforms, implementing GAO’s recommendation for ongoing, risk-based oversight of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid procurement process could enable CMS to promote competition and efficiency while preventing fraud, waste, and abuse in the program. Why GAO Did This Study This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's February 2021 report, entitled Medicaid: CMS Needs to Implement Risk-Based Oversight of Puerto Rico’s Procurement Process (GAO-21-229). Specifically, the testimony discusses findings from the report as they relate to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid procurement reform plan.
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