FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee: How will we respond to attacks on our electric grid?
Posted by Alex Donatelli on May 3, 2018
Imagine for a moment what a prolonged electrical outage would look like for families and communities across America. There’d be no calling or texting to connect with loved ones. No emailing with colleagues or using other technology to conduct business. No catching up on the news or enjoying a hot meal at the end of a long workday. Families would be forced to go without so many of the modern conveniences they rely on day in and day out.
Still, none of this comes close to revealing the full magnitude of a long-lasting disruption in the electrical grid. There are much greater, even life-threatening, consequences to consider. For a patient, a lengthy outage could mean not getting the urgent care they need. For someone in danger, it could mean not receiving help from authorities before it’s too late. For every single American, it could mean not having access to even the bare necessities of life, like clean water and food.
Though often taken for granted, reliable affordable electricity is at the core of modern society. But as reliance upon electricity has increased over the past several decades, so have the quantity and complexity of threats to the nation’s grid.
From changes in the generation mix to the effects of climate change to physical and cybersecurity risks, the grid faces a growing number of challenges. In particular, cyberthreats pose a particularly alarming concern to the reliability of our electric grid and, therefore, the security and prosperity of our nation.
It’s no secret that America’s critical infrastructure is under increasing attack by foreign nations. Both the Department of Homeland Security and FBI have issued multiple public reports describing intrusion campaigns by Russian government cyber actors against our critical infrastructure, including the electric grid. While thankfully none of these intrusions have resulted in an actual power outage, they do represent an unsettling uptick in attempts to undermine America’s critical infrastructure systems. Fortunately, agencies across the federal government are already taking important steps in the right direction.
For instance, at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, we have adopted a two-pronged approach to help secure the electric grid, including mandatory reliability standards as well as voluntary best practices and threat information sharing. While these efforts are important, comprehensively addressing emerging threats requires both strengthening our defenses and bolstering the grid to withstand and recover quickly from extreme events. To this end, FERC is currently evaluating grid resilience, including the ability to withstand cyberattacks, as a continuation of the important conversation that Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry initiated in 2017.
Throughout our process, the commission should work to address a critical question: What threats must the grid be designed to withstand? Traditionally, that expectation has included two primary criteria: one, there must be enough generation to meet demand; and two, the grid must withstand the loss of any single transmission element or generator without customers losing power.
Given the nation’s increasing reliance on electricity and escalating threats to the grid, it’s crucial that we evaluate whether these historic norms are enough or if additional steps are needed. For example, could the grid hold up against a cyberattack on a gas pipeline which could disrupt fuel to multiple generators? What about a cyberattack that could disable an entire substation?
These are important questions to examine, yet the unfortunate truth remains that, regardless of our diligence, it may not be possible or cost-effective to design the grid to withstand every single cyberattack, every single time. However, taking steps to reduce the size of disruptions and enhance the grid’s ability to bounce back quickly are both reasonable and important endeavors.
FERC faces a historic opportunity to holistically examine the array of new challenges confronting America’s electric grid, including those posed by cyberthreats. Though it may not be possible to fully prevent all attacks, this discussion is critical in determining how the grid can be designed to cost-effectively withstand or recover from future events. This evaluation will not be easy or quick, but it’s imperative that it move forward without delay. The continued security and prosperity of the country demands no less.
Neil Chatterjee ( @FERChatterjee ) has served as a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since August 2017.