Are smart grids a smart idea?

Alex Crees
By Alex Crees October 17th, 2018
For business

With the ever-heightening risk of cyberattacks, is it still a smart idea to pursue smart grids?

After all, it’s happening in tandem: the exponential growth of the Internet of Things and the troubling increase in reported cyberattacks targeting everything from personal computers to giant corporations to critical U.S. infrastructure, including the electric grid.

Attacks against the grid, in particular, made headlines this year after a federal government report revealed Russian hackers successfully gained access to a series of highly-secured networks owned by electric utilities.

The hackers’ goal was to learn the ins and outs of U.S. utility networks and send a message that Moscow could tamper with critical infrastructure in the U.S. in the event of a conflict.

Though the hackers did not manipulate the control systems, screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security show they had the ability to sabotage or shut down power plants at will.

“They got to the point where they could have thrown switches,” said Jonathan Homer, chief of industrial-control-system analysis for the DHS.

What is a smart grid?

The idea of a smart grid, essentially, is to rebuild the nation’s current electric grid using technology that allows for two-way communication between utilities and their customers, as well as sensing along the transmission lines.

It will consist of controls, computers, automation, and new technologies and equipment working together to improve the reliability and efficiency of the grid.

In theory, a smart grid should lessen the threat of widespread outages, especially during emergencies like severe storms, earthquakes, large solar flares and terrorist attacks.

“Because of its two-way interactive capacity, the Smart Grid will allow for automatic rerouting when equipment fails or outages occur,” the Department of Energy explains on its Smart Grid website. “This will minimize outages and minimize the effects when they do happen. When a power outage occurs, Smart Grid technologies will detect and isolate the outages, containing them before they become large-scale blackouts.”

Smart grids also have the potential to reduce peak demand (thereby reducing electric rates), better integrate large-scale and customer-owned renewable energy systems, and give customers a clear and timely picture of their own electricity usage.

‘A clear and present danger’

But for all its benefits, is it possible a smarter grid could actually be more vulnerable to the cyberattacks already targeting the U.S.’s current electric infrastructure?  It’s certainly a concern among cybersecurity experts.

In a 2017 paper published in the International Journal of Critical Infrastructure Protection, researchers from the Tandy School of Computer Science at the University of Tulsa examined security issues associated with smart grids and found reason for concern.

“Sophisticated cyberattacks on advanced metering infrastructures are a clear and present danger,” said Dr. Sujeet Shenoi, one of the study’s authors.

To assess the potential impact of an attack, the researchers analyzed an advanced metering infrastructure that included more than a million smart meters, a hundred data collectors and two data management systems.

They said attacks on smart grids could include stealing customer data, driving up electric bills by stealing power, as well as causing localized or widespread outages.

“The most devastating scenario involves a computer worm traversing advanced metering infrastructures and permanently disabling millions of smart meters,” said Dr. Shenoi.

He warned it could take months, or even a year, to recover from an attack that severe.

“Damaging a few million smart meters would cause a power outage in a large geographic area that may last anything from several months to over a year,” he said, blaming “the limited production and inventories of smart meters and availability of technicians.”

Because advanced metering networks are continuously evolving in terms of scale, topology, technology, functionality and security controls, the researchers said it was vital to continue analyzing the security landscape, create a framework for risk management programs, and train utility personnel for the possibility of an attack.

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Alex Crees is a writer covering issues related to energy, the environment and politics.  Her work has appeared in Fox News and Prevention. Alex earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University.