Stakeholders Address Security Challenges in Digitizing Power Grids

Against the backdrop of one of the largest and most disturbing cyberattacks yet, experts at a Washington discussion Monday focused more on the benefits of digitizing the power sector.

The Bipartisan Policy Center event took place just days after a mammoth ransomware attack wreaked havoc globally, disrupting operations in more than 150 countries.

Jason Grumet, president and founder of the BPC, introduced the cyber threats topic by saying there’s perhaps a misperception that more communication technology makes for greater vulnerability.

Panelists alluded to risks of digitization but generally talked up the benefits of greater connectedness. General Electric Power President and CEO Steve Bolze said $1.3 trillion can be unlocked by digitizing the electric sector between 2016-2025, citing research from the World Economic Forum.

“While security and cyber and safety are big topics, my opinion is those can be resolved while we work to get reliable power for everyone on the planet,” Bolze said. “It’s worth it.”

GE Power’s Predix software platform is cloud-based and has set security firewalls in place, Bolze added. He did offer a word of caution, however.

“These topics are fluid,” he said. “The only way you handle it is by going customer by customer and getting people comfortable.”

Chris Crane, president and CEO of Exelon, one of GE’s smart grid customers, agreed.

“Especially in the nuclear industry, you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” he said during the panel. “One event happens and we all go down.”

In addition to measures like “air gapping” — the strategy of, in this case, disconnecting nuclear plants entirely from the internet — Crane pointed to another way to address cybersecurity concerns that has recently become out of reach for some.

“The ultimate, if affordable, [solution] is to get on your own fiber and not have that vulnerability,” he said.

A federal district court of appeals Aug. 10 ruled against the Federal Communications Commission and municipal governments who wanted to build their own fiber optic networks, which would create a secure network for smart power grids. The court ruled in favor of state legislatures in North Carolina and Tennessee, who sided with telecom companies that said the municipal governments were unfairly competing for their customers.

“We are concerned about our [municipalities’] ability to build out fiber in the states where there are legislative efforts to stop them,” said event attendee Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, a collection of more than 2,000 community-owned electric utilities. “Building out their own fiber networks is generally a more secure way to support a smart grid.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the date for the ruling against the FCC and municipal governments.

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