Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami: Diversify and Secure the Energy Grid

In a recent smart grid summit at the Miami Beach Convention Center, the power went out right in the middle of a smart grid security panel discussion.  I was moderating the discussion between Southern Power, Cisco and Atmel when the lights dimmed and fell back to alternative power.  With top security specialists in the audience I first thought I would make light of the situation, questioning some people in about potential hackers causing the power outage. I then made it clear to the audience that this is just a minor inconvenience.  If they really wanted to know what it is like to not have power, they should come to Florida after a hurricane.  This is what is being seen in Japan with the additional concerns of radiation leaks form the Fukushima nuclear plants.  With the catastrophic event of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan in mind, we need to further define the importance of smart grids, their design and their needed security.  As seen, the potential loss of power though natural or man-made causes can be just an inconvenience but at other times it can be a global catastrophe.

First, the loss of life and suffering in Japan requires immediate global attention and support. As we support the immediate needs, we also need to learn from the disaster, as it relates to the policies and technology of global smart grid initiatives. A recent article by Christine Hertzog , Catastrophe and Grid Resiliency reported that the regional utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) instituted rolling blackouts to address a 25 percent shortfall in generation capacity.  This statistic alone clearly defines how centralized power and distribution (nuclear or not) are potentially big problems when destroyed by natural or man made catastrophic events.

The results of centralized power production, transmission and distribution combined with limited power grid network intelligence are being clearly demonstrated in Japan.  Another article in intelligentcommunity, Smart grid more attractive, post-Japan noted if smart grid demand response plans were in place, the utility (TEPCO) could have avoided cutting power to Tokyo’s rail service, which apparently compounded the national sense of confusion and resulting economic fallout. This same lack of grid intelligence is responsible for many costly power outages.  A study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) researchers Kristina Hamachi-LaCommare and Joe Eto for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution estimates that electric power outages and blackouts cost the US about $80 billion annually. The need for grid intelligence and design for a more resilient and intelligent power grid infrastructures are clear.

Although natural disasters offer chilling representations of power infrastructure devastation they really are not the biggest threat to our global power infrastructures.  Continued concerns of the power grids   security combined with centralized power production and distribution would cause massive outages if breached.  These little publicized breaches have occurred globally and are becoming more of a concern in both existing legacy grid networks and new smart grid network designs.  A recent InfoSec Island article,  “Scientists Decry Cyberwar as Governments Respond” by Dan Dieterle clearly reported the concerns of cyber attacks on our power grid quoting the concerns of high level government officials and scientists. There is little doubt in the article about the potential of a power grid breach. The question is how to defend against an attack.

Both grid security and resiliency need to be built in all current production, transmission, distribution and demand grid sectors. We can accomplish this by designing power production sources with secure and interoperable micro grids that can support both existing and upcoming alternative power sources.  Power production differs depending on the source of power and cannot always be decentralized.  A good example is Hydro One harnessing the power of Niagara Falls.  There is no one size fits all when designing power requirements for a region but now is the time to recognize the importance of properly building more diverse and secure smart grid topologies.  The modern smart grid must be designed to become more reliable, safe and secure. It is these very attributes that Japan needs today.  As we support this great nation in their difficult times and address this terrible disaster, let’s also use this opportunity to reflect on building a smart grid infrastructure that will securely serve our needs today and many years to come.

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Larry Karisny is the director of Project Safety.org, consultant, writer and industry speaker focusing on security solutions for public and private wireless broadband networks supporting smart grid, municipal, critical infrastructure, transportation, campus, enterprise and home area network applications.