Integrating power grids: what does it do to cyber resilience?

There are two big trends in the power utilities business today – with opposing signs:

  • Addition of micro-producers and microgrids, making consumers less bound to the large grid operators
  • Increasing integration of power grids over large distances, allowing mega-powerplants to serve enormous areas

Both trends will have impact on grid resilience; the microgrids are usually connected to regional grids in order to sell surplus power, and the mega plants obviously require large grid investments as well. When we seek to understand the effect on resilience we need to examine two types of events:

  • Large-scale random event threatening the regularity of the power transmission capability
  • Large-scale attack by SCADA hackers that knock out production and transmission capacities over extended areas

We will not perform a structured risk assessment here but we will rather look at some possible effects of these trends when it comes to power regularity and (national?) security.

Infographic from abou Fosen Vind – Europe’s largest onshore wind project (1000 MW)

Recent events that are interesting to know about

Mega-plants and increasing grid integration

Power plants are in the wind, literally speaking. The push for renewables to come to the market is giving concrete large-scale investments. Currently we are seeing several interesting projects moving ahead:

In addition to this, we see that NERC, the American organization responsible for the reliability of the power grids in the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico are working to include Mexico as a full member. This will very likely lead to increased integration of the power transmission capacities across the U.S.-Mexico border, at least at the organizational and grid management levels.

Random faults and large-scale network effects

What happens to the transmission capacity when random faults occur? This depends on the redundancy built into the network, and the capacities of the remaining lines when one or more paths fail. As more of the energy mix moves towards renewables we are going to be even more dependent on a reliable transmission grid; renewable energy is hard to store, and the cost of high-capacity storage will add to the energy price, making renewable sources less competitive compared with fossil fuels.

If we start relying on mega plants, this is also going to make us depend more on a reliable grid. The network effects would have to be investigated using methods like Monte Carlo simulations (RAM analysis) but what we should expect is:

  • Mega plants will require redundancy in intercontinental grid connections to avoid blackouts if one route is down
  • Areas without access to base load energy supply would be more vulnerable than those that can supply their own energy locally
  • Prices will fluctuate over larger areas when energy production is centralized
  • Micro-grids and micro-production should alleviate some of the increased vulnerability for small consumers (like private households) but are unlikely to be an effective buffer for industrial consumers

Coordinated cyber warfare campaigns

Recent international events have brought cyber warfare to the forefront of politics. Recently it was suggested at the RSA conference that deterrence through information sharing and openness does not work, and we are not able to deny the intrusion of state sponsored hackers, so we need to respond in force to such attacks, including armed military response in the physical world.

Recent cyberattacks in this domain have been reported from conflict zones. The reports receiving the most attention in media are those coming out of the Ukraine, where the authorities have accused Russia to be responsible for a series of cyber-attacks, including the one causing a major blackout in parts of Ukraine in December 2015. For a nice summary of the Ukrainian situation, see this post on the cybersecurity blog from SANS.

Increasing cooperation across national borders can increase or resilience but at the same time it will make effects of attacks spread to larger regions. Depending on the security architecture of the network as a whole, attackers could be able of compromising entire continents, potentially damaging the defense capabilities of those countries severely as population morale is hit by the loss of critical infrastructure.

What should we do now?

There are many positive outcomes of increased integration and very large renewable energy producers – but we should not disregard risks, including the political ones. When building such plants and the grids necessary to serve customers we need to ensure sufficient redundancy exists to cope with partial fallouts in a reasonable manner. We should also build our grids such that we have a robust security architecture, with auditable rules to ensure security management is on par across borders. This is the strength of NERC. Cyber resilience considerations should be made also for other parts of the world. Perhaps it is time to lay the groundwork for international conventions on grid reliability and security before we end up connecting all our continents to the same electrical network.

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