The electrical grid is vital not only to civil society but to the military as well. Defending it against the threats of the post-9/11 era requires strategic thinking to complement the grid’s 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 open-ended demand strains supply. Now, new technologies are coming to help, but they 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 Peter Fox-Penner put it 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 that have been 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” that lowers consumption, as Economics 101 predicted.
Today, the typical electro-mechanical meter on a home’s outside wall measures the electricity going in. For a smarter grid, an advanced meter — digital, precise and connected — is penetrating much of the U.S. market. Eventually, an even-smarter meter might connect to each appliance in the house. The consumer (or utility) could see how much each consumes, and control it, 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 invasions of privacy by utilities studying big data analytics, of lessened security by a system that can signal “nobody home,” and of radio-frequency emissions. Electronic intrusions by government — ours or China’s — 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. A recent congressional report on “Electric Grid Vulnerability” criticizes US grid security policy, relying on industry consensus and voluntary measures.
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 a one-size-fits-all magnet of vulnerability to accidents, natural disasters and attackers. Thinkers such as security strategist Dan Geer and energy architect Toby Considine suggest that modular, even inconsistent structures would be much less vulnerable to attack than a singe unified network. It is this kind of strategic thinking that the smart grid needs: 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 the Department of Energy’s policy and systems analysis.
The smart grid could significantly benefit everyone – is security is a consistent goal.
That will require a new level of strategic thinking on the electrical grid.
Tom Blau is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
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