Smart grid and cybersecurity: With great power comes great responsibility

Though few upgrades have been made to U.S. electric grid in the last 100 years, a movement to modernize our electrical infrastructure is well underway. As mentioned in an earlier post, smart grid infrastructure rolling out nation-wide will enable a host of never before possible interactions between utilities and end users. For example, consumers will be able to sell excess power from their solar panels or electric vehicles back to the grid, utilities will be able to pinpoint a blackout and instantly redirect power around faulty lines, and much, much more.

With this growth, utilities face a range of new challenges they’ve not had to deal with before. As a cornucopia of smart grid technologies, systems and devices continue to roll-out nation-wide, there is an urgent need to ensure these different platforms securely and effectively talk to each other. The very nature of adding information and communications technology to the electric power grid and making everything work together intelligently and securely is a daunting task. Yet this is critical to the success of the smart grid.

While most consumers generally understand the notion of data protection, there are new security precautions that must be considered with a smarter grid and these ideas can often be foreign for the average energy user.

So, let’s dig into why security is (and should be) a critical issue to consumers and the energy industry alike.

Digitization of energy requires new safeguards

Much of the smart energy infrastructure’s national rollout is supported by increasing amounts of information and communications technology (ICT), from smart meters that communicate wirelessly with consumers and utilities, to data centers that help crunch the huge amount of information generated gather by new, smarter energy systems. While these advanced technologies are critical to delivering the benefits of a modern grid, the technologies and the energy sector itself, have become the targets for malicious cyberattacks.

Though these breaches are not unique, attacks in the energy industry have very real and immediate implications for business and consumers: A serious attack could cause blackouts and bring our modern lives to a screeching halt.

Infusing intelligence into the smart grid

While the current electric grid is stable and strong, data breaches continue to grow and action must be taken now to prepare for the coming years, according to MIT’s new study released in early December, 2011, “The Future of the Electric Grid.”

Regarding cybersecurity, the MIT report says:

The ability of utilities to incorporate technological developments in electric grid systems and components on an ongoing basis will be critical to mitigating the data communications and cybersecurity challenges associated with grid modernization.

Pike Research analyst, Bob Lockart, summed it up best in a recent announcement: “Smart grids need intelligence or they are not smart.”

The good news is utilities are beginning to understand this need and are investing billions to secure our energy future. In fact, initiatives to secure utility infrastructure will likely drive increasing investment in the cyber security industry, which may total as much as $14 billion from 2011 to 2018 says Pike Research.

Why does it matter if people understand the security needs of a smarter grid? Studies show that the less familiar people are with new energy technologies, the less supportive of them they are likely to be. If there is little consumer support for new technologies we will miss out on the promise of a smarter grid.

While there is still much ground to cover, it is encouraging that utilities are recognizing gaps and working to inject intelligence into the grid to ensure that our modern energy infrastructure will not be stopped in its tracks by cyber-bandits.

Visit these sites for more details on the work being done on grid modernization and cybersecurity: