Over time, with new knowledge and awareness about carbon emissions and climate change, we have started to make smarter energy consumption choices worldwide. Nations are broadening their use of alternative and renewable energy sources and programs such as LEED encourage better building efficiencies. Here in the US, the electric grid is changing, too.
“Smart grid” technology, as it is called, organizes a nation’s electric grid a manner similar to the way the Internet connects web users. Instead of providing merely a one-way transmission of electricity from power plants to buildings, smart grids allow for feedback communication, as well. Information flows back and forth between provider and recipient, and the system automatically tailors itself to improve distribution efficiency. Real-time energy use can be monitored, power outages can be quickly detected, and consumers can make more informed decisions about their utility consumption. In theory, smart grids are win-win for pretty much everyone.
With this migration toward a digitalized electric control system, however, we also face a host of new challenges. One of the main concerns that has raised a number of eyebrows is that of cybersecurity. A complex, computer-based infrastructure opens the door to new vulnerabilities and access points. These need to be addressed and adequately protected; otherwise, they could be exploited by ill-willed individuals looking to damage to the US. Awareness of this security matter has spread significantly over the past few years, and more and more voices are speaking out and calling for action.
Last year, there was a push to pass a bill that would bolster the cybersecurity of some of our key national infrastructures, but it was blocked in Senate. More recently, President Obama issued an executive order calling for transparency and information sharing between the government and private sectors in order to better protect the country against possible cyber invasions. The order also makes a request for voluntary submissions of cybersecurity “innovations” that could be widely adopted throughout the energy sector—in particular, those with a smart-grid focus.
As validation for the reality of this threat, consider an incident that took place a few years back. In 2010, a Chinese graduate student published an article with the journal Safety Science, which outlined how someone with the right knowledge could bring down the entire United States power grid through a cascading failure-based attack. Though the student was merely releasing an academic paper and had no malicious intent, he did reveal significant weaknesses in our system. Should someone want to cripple the US through a nation-wide, prolonged blackout, the possibility of his/her success exists.
Reports of cyber attacks on government divisions and national infrastructure are increasing. The energy sector, in particular, has fallen under fire. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that in 2012, our energy systems were the targets of 40% of cyberattacks aimed at “critical infrastructure.” Additionally, head of DHS Janet Napolitano has warned the country against a “9/11 in the cyber world.” She has stated that attacks are “increasing in seriousness and sophistication” and a successful one could “paralyze the nation.”
Technologically, the upcoming years will be critical for the US. We face a host of interconnected challenges, many of which combine energy production, energy distribution, and national security. As many are realizing, it is imperative for us to tighten up our cyber systems. With the Internet and digital connectivity playing such a key role in the world today, we have to take extra steps to protect not just our physical systems, but our cyber ones, as well.