Cybersecurity and the Smart Grid : Explained

The way you power your computer, your lights and your car is likely to be radically different in the future. Coal is vanishing, wind turbines are popping up, and engineers everywhere are looking to revolutionize the system that brings electricity to you by creating a “smart grid.”

But concerns about the security of the computer networks critical to such a revolution still exist, says Bryan Lampley, en engineer at Hoffman Building technologies, speaking at a recent panel in Chapel Hill.

“Cybersecurity is huge,” said Lampley. “Lack of proper cybersecurity is one of the main reasons why we don’t already have a smart grid.”

Like many other experts in his field, Lampley expects the coming of a revolution in our electricity system to be highly dependent on the developments in cybersecurity.

So what is a smart grid?

The grid, which is a network of transmission lines, substations, and transformers, is what delivers electricity from power plants to private homes. Although considered an engineering marvel, many experts claim it to be an outdated system that needs to be made “smarter.”

Kyle Bradbury, managing director at Duke Energy Initiative is one of these experts. Bradbury works on creating models for the grid that help identify the best ways to integrate renewable sources like wind and solar.

“The grid that we have today is one that was designed for the past,” says Bradbury. “Technology has advanced greatly since its conception, and we need to use it to make the grid meet the needs of today’s consumers.”

He defines the smart grid as an evolved grid. “It is a system that manages the supply and demand of electricity in a way that is reliable, economic, and entirely sustainable.”

Bradbury says that for a grid to be “smart” it has to be built on an advanced infrastructure that allows easy integration of all forms of energy. More specifically, he says, “A smart grid needs to make use of digital technology to allow for fast communication between the energy providers and the energy consumers.”

For example, if the electricity meter in a consumer’s home were to malfunction, a smart grid would be able to detect this and notify the utilities so that proper action can be taken.

Or a smart grid may allow consumers to report their daily schedules. The grid may then adjust the energy in the cooling and heating systems of the home depending on the number of occupants it expects at any given time.

“It will have automation, better controls, computers, and big data that make it possible to respond quickly to our rapidly changing electricity demand,” says Bradbury.

What is cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity focuses on protecting computers, programs, networks, and data from unauthorized access and change. It is especially important in today’s technological world because governments, financial institutions, hospitals, and other businesses collect, store and process a great deal of confidential data digitally.

Lack of or poor implementations of such security can be absolutely devastating. Even established companies like Target have suffered greatly in recent data breaches because of careless network security design.

Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill defines a secure system as one that is protected against misuse and interference.

“When a system is ‘secure’, it is entirely free to carry out its intended tasks,” says Reiter. “There are no external or even internal holes that could lead to its corruption or destruction.”

He says that what that means specifically will vary and that it is important to make sure the security of a system is well crafted to fit its needs.

“A ‘secure’ web browser and a ‘secure’ network are not the same because they are intended to do very different things,” says Reiter. “For that reason, security for any system, especially one as complex as a smart grid must be tailor fitted.”

How do the two intersect?

“For something like the smart grid to ever become a reality, we need good cybersecurity,” says Reiter. “It is as simple as that.”

Bradbury agrees and says that without good grid security, the system would be far more harmful than helpful.

“Hackers would tear the entire grid down within hours,” says Bradbury. “Both the consumers and the utilities would be at their mercy.”

He says that these attacks would come from not just individuals with malicious intent, but also from large companies and even governments. Given the right tools, hackers may be able to gain administrative access to centralized systems that control electricity in a smart grid.

“It is very frightening to think that power to a massive metropolis could be cut by a few well-designed cyber attacks,” says Bradbury. “But without the right protection, that could very well happen.”

A cyber attack is any attempt by an individual or group to damage or destroy a computer network or system.

Reiter says that digitizing the power grid means opening it up to anyone with a computer.

“So like any digital system or piece of software, the grid would become vulnerable to things like viruses, distributed attacks, and other forms of cyber attacks,” says Reiter.

Both Reiter and Bradbury, though optimistic about the possibility for such a modern and efficient grid, acknowledge that security concerns must be carefully considered and tested before deployment even on a small scale.