The Smart Grid Needs to be a Safe Grid

By T.J. Kasperbauer

Imagine you wake up one morning to discover that your entire city has lost power. What would you guess is the most likely cause? A tornado? Equipment malfunction? Terrorist attack?

Increasingly, American’s energy grid is under threat from cyberattacks. This is not a new problem, but so far the solutions have been inadequate. In order to improve our energy grid, we must build cybersecurity into its main functions.

One way the U.S. is currently trying to combat cyberattacks is through development of the Smart Grid. Under Smart Grid, energy production and distribution are decentralized. Decentralization creates redundancies that help prevent a single attack from taking down the whole grid. Devices on the Smart Grid are also in constant communication, which enhances detection of attacks and outages.

The main problem with the Smart Grid is that its interconnectedness produces vulnerabilities. By putting all devices in two-way communication with each other, the Smart Grid increases the number of possible entry points for attacks. Moreover, the Smart Grid connects the energy grid to lots of other “grids.” For instance, household electricity usage can be monitored on the internet. Foreign or domestic adversaries—including lone wolf hackers—could potentially use this sort of connectability to influence the Smart Grid.

Some attempts have been made to address this problem. For instance, DARPA is currently installing automated cybersecurity defense systems into power grids. And the Department of Energy routinely funds projects aimed at testing and improving the cybersecurity of the energy grid ($34 million in August 2016). There are also published guidelines for protecting energy cybersecurity (in 2010 and 2015). These are all important and should continue, but must be better integrated into the Smart Grid as it develops.

In order to preserve the benefits of the Smart Grid, we must build security alongside connectability. This requires better anticipation of future problems in order to design security into grid functions.

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