by Iyioluwa Okunlola
The U.S. electricity grid has been impeded by tangible phenomena such as severe weather events causing blackouts and power spikes, and individuals physically tampering with its integrity. While such tangible factors have always threatened our grid, the technological advancements of the 21st century that are streamlining how we produce, transmit, and consume electricity could also be seen as a double-edged sword enabling new cybersecurity threats. In 2010, Kenneth Van Meter of Lockheed Martin affirmed that there will be “440 million new hackable points on our electricity grid by the end of 2015.” As predicted, December 2015 saw a global harbinger of grid cybersecurity issues when the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine was left without electricity due to a hacker-led attack on its electrical grid. Could more hackable points on the electricity grid create more opportunities for hackers to compromise the grid? Some government officials seem to think so. On September 27th, 2017, Elaine Duke, the Acting United States Secretary of Homeland Security, declared to Congress that the U.S. energy network is currently the most vulnerable industry to cybersecurity attacks. With National Cyber Security awareness month—observed every October—here, there has come the time to rethink just how vulnerable the transitioning U.S. grid is, and what preventive measures are most appropriate for cybersecurity threats to the smart grid.
Smart grid technology utilizes networked sensing devices for interactivity between the utility and end user, ultimately increasing efficiency in servicing our ever-increasing energy needs. The development of a “smart” decentralized energy grid, where distributed generation allows residential, commercial, and industrial end users to consume electricity close to the generation source, promises the potential for improved grid performance. The U.S. Department of Energy lists some of the benefits of a smart grid as:
- Efficiency in the transmission of electricity
- Quicker restoration of electricity after power disturbances
- Reduced operational and management costs (due to automation) for utilities thus maintaining lower electricity costs for consumers
- Reduced peak demand enabling lower electricity rates
- Increased integration of large-scale renewable energy systems
- Better integration of distributed, including renewable energy systems
- Improved security
These benefits will ultimately be incorporated through devices such as smart meters and routers capable of automating and controlling many of the obsolete and therefore less energy efficient grid processes.
Sally Ward-Foxton of Electronic Design best explained the duality of heightened cybersecurity issues affecting the smart grid when she said, “will the introduction of smart meters overall increase security of the electricity grid, or will the increased opportunities for electronic attack overall reduce security?” In this sense, incorporating smart grid technology could in the long run make the grid more susceptible to hacking. It will be important for our government agencies (e.g. ARPA-E), academic institutions, and the private sector to invest heavily in research and development to ensure secure technology and industry standards are incorporated into a rapidly changing electricity grid. Ensuring that those 440 million new hackable points on the grid remain uncompromised is of primary importance as the U.S. transitions to a smart grid. As one might say, “Prevention is the best cure.”
Iyioluwa Okunlola joined CRS in May 2017 as a Green-e Verification Associate, having earned a B.Sc. in Conservation Biology from St. Lawrence University; during college, he completed a fellowship with SAHA Global, an NGO that implements potable water businesses and other sustainable technology solutions in rural villages in Ghana. Iyi hopes to apply his background to renewable energy markets and sustainable development projects in Sub-Saharan African nations.