Energy / Iran / Sanctions

Hackers, Pipeline Problems Serious Threat to Aging Electric Grid


The Keystone pipeline isn’t the only one causing a headache for energy watchdogs. Last week, the WSJ reported that Iranian hackers had gone “far enough to worry people” in possibly manipulating oil or gas pipelines through the computers that control electricity generation. Such cyberattacks, believed to be a retaliation against sanctions, are seen as a way for Iran to “not only empower themselves but to signal to the Western world they are capable in cyberspace.” Now this may seem like a dystopian future flick featuring Will Smith – terrorist hackers attacking us from behind a glowing computer screen, bringing down the power grids across the nation – but the threat to our electric grid is real Cybersecurity is not the only problem for our aging system. With the rising demand for renewable energy, and now the surging production of natural gas, the grid is struggling for reliability amidst far too many vulnerabilities.

You may wonder what computers have to do with energy, I know I did when I first heard about the Iranian attacks. When coal, or increasingly natural gas, is burned, it turns water into steam that turns a generator. The generators create AC power that is sent to a transmission substation which uses transformers to send the power through the transmission grid. The power is then sent to a power substation, stepped down in voltage by transformer drums, and distributed to households. (How Power Grids Work) This system is transitioning into a Smart Grid that will allow for greater efficiency and help to integrate a variety of power sources. The Smart Grid computerizes the electrical system of controls and sensors. According to the Department of Energy, “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.” This is where the hackers attack.

As if facing reportedly 10,000 attempted attacks a month wasn’t enough, an increasing transition from coal to gas is exposing preexisting weak spots in an aging system. USNews reported that limited pipeline capacity creates bottlenecks because areas can’t access as much gas as they would like and end up paying much higher costs or losing natural gas service altogether. This lack of integration has already caused blackouts, while cyberattacks have yet to be successful.

It wasn’t until recently that a bill passed through the House allowing utilities to keep energy flowing during inclement weather or other emergencies and maintain grid reliability without fines or lawsuits. Though some have warned that this sets a bad precedent of dismissing environmental safeguards on a whim, the bill requires the DOE to “consult with regulators on ways to minimize the environmental effects of the grid reliability orders,” reports FuelFix.

With the recent resignation of FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff, some have reminisced on his green legacy of adapting the electric grid to integrate more renewable energy, and increasing cybersecurity. However, a report by Reps. Markey and Waxman indicates that industry- and municipality-owned utilities do not comply with voluntary standards or make real efforts to reduce vulnerability to other threats like geomagnetic storms. Industry is resistant to give FERC greater authority and insists it places “the highest priority on ensuring the security and resiliency of our electric system.” The threat to cybersecurity is growing rapidly, and, with so many struggles to integrate energy other than coal, industry should be making every effort to increase reliability.