Grid Modernization – Protecting the Nation’s Electric Grid and Our Way of Life

Grid Modernization – Protecting the Nation’s Electric Grid and Our Way of Life

Grid Modernization – Protecting the Nation’s Electric Grid and Our Way of Life 590 236 admin

By Brian Foster

The US Senate recently passed SEIA, Securing Energy Infrastructure Act, (it was wrapped into the 2019 Intelligence Authorization Act) which hopes to protect the Nation’s Electric Grid. One specific measure proposed to protect the Grid is to revert back to the use of “retro” (analog, manual) technologies. The belief is that by using retro technology to isolate the grid’s most important control systems, it will protect against cyber-attacks that could cause outages in power transmission.

When faced with challenges, both in life and in business, it can be tempting to return to a place of familiarity, a comfort zone. And yes, sometimes it may even be beneficial to do so. But most of the time, it can hold us back or worse, provide us false comforts. In the case of SEIA, the idea of intentionally antiquating the controls and protections of the national electric grid is a poor idea that will have numerous negative effects. Reverting to the uses of manual and non-digital controls in the US critical infrastructure is a short sighted attempt at securing the power grid from cyber attacks.

Electric Utilities have largely moved away from electro-mechanical and manual controls for many beneficial reasons. I will get into a few reasons shortly. First, it is important to address that the level of manual controls that would need to even begin to protect the nation from cyber-attacks on the grid would be substantial. This would come with a variety of consequences. A significant consequence would be the US would largely have to give up on the future of a flexible grid that can adapt to the changing needs of energy consumers. The grid would not meet the demands of smart homes with distributed energy generation. Further, we would have to accept longer outages, agree to no longer hold Utility companies responsible for assisting with forest fire prevention, agree to higher costs for the energy we use, and we would have to reevaluate the viability of renewable energy.  These are the start of the consequences if we decide to protect the grid by making it obsolete.

From a technical perspective, advocates of protecting the grid via antiquation are partially correct. If enough of the control and protection systems were converted back to retro systems the Grid would be more difficult to remotely hack (and enough would be a lot more than most folks would initially think). However it would also be much easier for drones, people, and even several poorly timed birds to cause an outage across large geographical areas for what could amount to hours or days of time. By limiting the ability of cyber-attacks, we will have to significantly increase the impact of physical attacks. This is not a win, but is actually a big loss.

Utilities have distanced from the manual controls of an era gone because they are not compatible with how we live, consume electricity, and most certainly do not align with how we will intelligently consume electricity in the future. To truly protect the bulk electric system via antiquity, manual controls would have to extend down into the distribution systems (those which deliver power to our houses, hospitals, stadiums, and such). With manual controls at only the large transmission level threat actors (bad hackers for those not in the industry) could wreak just as much havoc through intentional prolonged manipulation of the distribution systems tied to large transmission. While it may require slightly more complexity, it is foolish to assume those with the intent to cause harm could not accomplish it. Manual controls at the distribution level means the reasons Utilities have moved away from them will need to be abandoned. Just a few of those reasons are to: isolate outages, shorten the duration of outages, support renewable energy, support energy storage, support the adoption of electric cars, support the utilization of home solar installations, help prevent forest fires, make the grid more flexible with demand response, make power cleaner, make power more affordable, and so much more. Going backwards is not the answer.

Congress is considering a variety of things to help protect both our nation’s electric grid and our way of life. One of which is to support Grid Modernization. Utilities all around the country are working on building an updated grid (also known as Grid Modernization or GridMod) that will meet tomorrow’s needs and is more resilient, more secure (both cyber and physical), and safer. Congress could direct the National Labs (which are already helping in the GridMod effort) to expand their existing help in securing the Grid of tomorrow instead of returning to the relics of our past. Even more impactful would be an initiative to increase the availability of training to increase the number of people with the skill sets to help move us forward. Individuals reading this should think about what you want out of your power company. If you, like me, want to move forward to a safer more resilient grid powered by a variety of reliable energy sources, then one option to consider is to contact your congress person and ask them to oppose moving our country backwards by opposing the retro technology in the Securing Energy Infrastructure Act found in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020.