Recently we were warned once again about possible terrorist attacks on the grid and the internet. Shutting off our electricity in almost any season would be uncomfortable and difficult but with winter coming it could be deadly. Given that our grid has become increasingly centralized in interdependent districts which, if disabled would affect huge areas of the United States, the possibility of outages caused by hacking or similar tactics is intimidating and could have very serious outcomes. Similarly disruptions to the internet, on which we have grown increasingly dependent, would be equally daunting.
The dangers are spelled out in an article entitled DOD official: Vulnerability of U. S. electrical grid is a dire concern, by Dan Merica.
Speaking candidly at the Aspen Security Forum, one defense department official expressed great concern about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. electric grid that would cause a “long term, large scale outage.”
Paul Stockton, assistant secretary for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs at the Department of Defense, said such an attack would affect critical defense infrastructure at home and abroad – a thought that Stockton said was keeping him up at night.
“The DOD depends on infrastructure in order to be able to operate abroad. And to make those operations function, we depend on the electric grid,” Stockton said.
The concern, Stockton continued, was that America’s adversaries would avoid attacking “the pointy end of the spear,” meaning combat troops, and would instead look for homeland, possibly non-military, targets.
“Our adversaries, state and non-state, are not stupid. They are clever and adaptive,” Stockton said. “There is a risk that they will adopt a profoundly asymmetric strategy, reach around and attack us here at home, the critical infrastructure that is not owned by the Department of Defense.”
But Stockton’s concerns were not solely limited to terrorist attacks. Other concerning scenarios, said the assistant secretary, include geomagnetic disturbances, earthquakes and other natural disasters that could take down the grid.
According to Stockton, a recurrence of a massive earthquake, like the New Madrid earthquake of 1812, “would cause a power outage for weeks to months across a multi-state area, rolling blackouts in the East Coast…”
What are our options? How do we defend ourselves against cyberattacks that would be designed to disrupt the American economy and could possibly be quite effective in accomplishing such a goal? Decentralization might be one obvious choice. Divide the large grid districts into the smaller districts we used to have. This would make it difficult, however, to direct power to where it was most needed. So if giving up huge grid control centers is not desirable then we need some other solution. So we need an interconnected grid that operates like a parallel circuit rather than a series circuit, in other words, it is connected but also separate. And of course, we might be able to section off parts of the internet, but this also seems counterproductive to me, unless there is a way to minimize the separations for legitimate users.
Discussions for making a smart grid are not designed to protect the grid from terrorist attacks but they are designed to make the grid easier to maintain. Using smart grid methods is problematic because there are privacy issues. If there is a meter that can communicate to the grid from inside our homes without being read by a physical person, people worry that other info could also be gathered in this manner without our knowledge. The following explanation is from the energy.gov web site:
Smart grid” generally refers to a class of technology people are using to bring utility electricity delivery systems into the 21st century, using computer-based remote control and automation. These systems are made possible by two-way communication technology and computer processing that has been used for decades in other industries. They are beginning to be used on electricity networks, from the power plants and wind farms all the way to the consumers of electricity in homes and businesses. They offer many benefits to utilities and consumers — mostly seen in big improvements in energy efficiency on the electricity grid and in the energy users’ homes and offices.
For a century, utility companies have had to send workers out to gather much of the data needed to provide electricity. The workers read meters, look for broken equipment and measure voltage, for example. Most of the devices utilities use to deliver electricity have yet to be automated and computerized. Now, many options and products are being made available to the electricity industry to modernize it.
The “grid” amounts to the networks that carry electricity from the plants where it is generated to consumers. The grid includes wires, substations, transformers, switches and much more.
Much in the way that a “smart” phone these days means a phone with a computer in it, smart grid means “computerizing” the electric utility grid. It includes adding two-way digital communication technology to devices associated with the grid. Each device on the network can be given sensors to gather data (power meters, voltage sensors, fault detectors, etc.), plus two-way digital communication between the device in the field and the utility’s network operations center. A key feature of the smart grid is automation technology that lets the utility adjust and control each individual device or millions of devices from a central location.
Wikipedia summarizes the arguments for decentralizing the grid into Micro grids:
Decentralization of the power transmission distribution system is vital to the success and reliability of this system. Currently the system is reliant upon relatively few generation stations. This makes current systems susceptible to impact from failures not within said area. Micro grids would have local power generation, and allow smaller grid areas to be separated from the rest of the grid if a failure were to occur. Furthermore, micro grid systems could help power each other if needed. Generation within a micro grid could be a downsized industrial generator or several smaller systems such as photo-voltaic systems, or wind generation. When combined with Smart Grid technology, electricity could be better controlled and distributed, and more efficient.
These would be great areas on which enterprising young internet wizards could focus their attentions. Designing useful national security approaches for both our electrical grid and for any computer sites that need to be absolutely “unhackable” would be worth the offer of a government prize or prizes to the winning creator or team of creators. However, the real problem, besides a need for someone to create the technology, would be finding the money to implement the plan once it is designed. Money, in fact, will be a consistent litany keeping us from the future we need to build and the availability of funds will rely on rebuilding our economy.