Grid Ripe for Cyber Attacks

Wednesday, December 7, 2011 @ 02:12 PM gHale

Power lines that run to homes and businesses in the U.S. need standards to safeguard them from cyber attacks, a new report said.

Federal standards to secure the nation’s high-voltage electricity grid against sabotage from hackers, disgruntled employees and terrorists don’t cover almost 6 million miles of lower-voltage power lines, according to the 268-page Massachusetts Institute of Technology report.

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The study focuses on challenges to the U.S. power network over the next two decades, including the addition of renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, and electricity pricing. U.S. officials are studying whether reliability may be in jeopardy from attacks on the network or by Environmental Protection Agency rules, which utilities said could force them to shut down some generating plants fueled by coal and oil.

“If regulatory policies and the technologies employed in the grid do not change, it is likely to be difficult to maintain acceptable reliability and electric rates,” the scientists from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in the report.

Attacks on the power network are “a greater threat to our reliability” than air-pollution rules, said John Norris, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The EPA will ensure its regulations don’t endanger grid reliability, said Gina McCarthy, the environmental agency’s assistant administrator.

The MIT study also calls for designation of a single federal agency to combat cyber attacks on the U.S. power network.

President Barack Obama’s administration has proposed the Homeland Security Department lead cyber security efforts for the power network, while Congress has placed more emphasis on the Energy Department and FERC, according to the study.

“Ongoing jurisdictional confusion raises security concerns, underscoring the need for action,” according to the MIT study led by John G. Kassakian, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Richard Schmalensee, a professor of economics and management.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp., an Atlanta- based organization that serves as the government’s power-grid watchdog, has measures in place to guard against cyber attacks and can fine utilities as much as $1 million a day for violating reliability standards. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is also taking steps to bolster cyber security.

The agency chosen to lead grid-cyber security efforts should work with state and federal authorities as well as industry experts, the MIT group said.

FERC should also have greater authority to let high-voltage power lines cross state lines over local opposition, according to the study.

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