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Commentary: An Insecure 'Smart' Grid Is Not So Smart

Oct. 16, 2013 - 03:43PM   |  
By TOM BLAU   |   Comments
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The electrical grid is vital both to civil society and to national security. Today, the grid faces threats that require new, strategic thinking to complement its focus on local interests and financial maintenance. More than operationally efficient, let us also make it secure.

We all benefit from the grid’s great goal: to routinely provide as much electricity as we demand, even if it strains supply. Now, new technologies are coming to help — but they also may increase insecurity.

For most of the 20th century, the electricity “grid” (more a metaphor than a specific thing) was controlled top-down by utilities and a regulatory structure that “only a lawyer could love,” as industry authority Peter Fox-Penner wrote in his book, “Smart Power.”

Power companies and regulators called the grid “the world’s biggest machine” and a “natural monopoly,” at least at the state level, creating governance structures sometimes compared to the Balkans. Big, stationary plants and pipelines, they argued, were not the stuff of market competition. Lacking market mechanisms, behaving economically — conserving energy — was unrewarding for producers and consumers.

Today the grid, like other industries, welcomes digital technologies to make it “smart,” even moving software and services to the “cloud.”

Operators of a smart grid could bring on multiple generators, instantly detect and deal with system faults, and buy less at price peaks and more at lows (just like in a market). And experiments show that facing varying prices rather than a single average encourages consumer “demand response,” consuming less at high prices, as Economics 101 predicted.

Today, the typical electro-mechanical meter on an outside wall measures total electricity going in. A smart grid will utilize progressively smarter meters — digital and networked (globally reaching 100 million annually, says IHS Inc.). Eventually, a very smart meter might connect to each appliance in the house. The consumer (or utility) could monitor and control each, say, via the Internet.

Despite the benefits, this is disruptive. In the industry, digitization complicates traditional top-down control and the politically negotiated business plan. The smart grid also faces citizens wary of government control of their appliances, of invasion of privacy by utilities studying big data analytics, of insecurity of a system that can signal “nobody home” and emit radio-frequency beams. Electronic intrusions by government, whether the NSA or China, only increase suspicions. Meanwhile, state utility regulators, as in New Jersey, are less ready to let utilities raise rates for novel new benefits.

But an even greater problem for the grid, especially as it utilizes advanced information technology, is to protect software and hardware against intentional, accidental and natural threats ranging from hackers to electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), whether caused by the sun or North Korea. The state of Maine is acting to protect its power systems from EMPs. For the grid nationally, virtually no one feels secure against deliberate interruption. Last week, the latest of three recent physical attacks on the Arkansas grid left 10,000 without power. A recent congressional report on “Electric Grid Vulnerability” criticizes grid security policy’s reliance on industry consensus and voluntarism.

An increasingly integrated network is only as secure as its weakest link. “Smartness” increases risk by introducing multiple new points of access to an almost-instantaneous network.

The challenge for government and industry is to introduce more efficient new technologies and network security standards without creating one-size-fits-all magnets of vulnerability to accidents, natural disasters and attackers. Thinkers such as security strategist Dan Geer and energy architect Toby Considine argue that modular, even inconsistent structures are less vulnerable to attack than a single unified network. The smart grid needs such strategic thinking: broadening the system analyzed conceptually and geographically, and including a role for the enemy (“red teaming”).

Perhaps this is why Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is consolidating his department’s capabilities for policy analysis and systems analysis.

The smart grid could significantly benefit everyone — if security is a consistent goal.

That will require a new level of strategic thinking in the electrical grid.

Tom Blau, an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

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