Solar Power As a Solution to U.S. Cyber Security Threats

Emergency Preparedness
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U.S. Power Grid and Solar Powered Cybersecurity

The U.S. power grid contains over 120,000 miles of electrical wiring, a network spanning more than half the distance to the moon. The grid, as a critical component of the U.S. information infrastructure, has become increasingly susceptible to cyber attacks. To be clear, the U.S. grid itself has not grown less secure. The sophistication of potential cyber attacks, however, has grown rapidly.

At risk for cyber attacks, the grid’s predominant role in power supply throughout the United States is forcing government officials and consumers alike to look at solar power as a safeguarding mechanism from attacks aimed at our power grid.

Building a Smarter, Solar-Supplied Power Grid

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is one of the many innovative research entities looking for methods of adding security to the grid. In practice, they review technologies for their ability to make the distribution system more resilient to weather-related power outages or terrorist attacks, both of which being events to which solar power could provide additional security and safety.

These innovations range from use of plug-in electric vehicles and solar photovoltaic systems as back-up solar power supplies for residences to community energy storage projects using batteries. A POP advisor and former grid regulator, Rick Mroz, agrees: “We can all see that cybersecurity threats are going to evolve,” he notes.

Unfortunately, the kinds of grid-based cyberattacks are as numerous as they are dangerous. While attacks and “hacking” are oftentimes reduced to computer-based incidents, the grid’s infrastructure is quite similar to that of a computer. Both are electrical networks and, therefore, computer hacks can be emulated or modeled via the grid, and in the following forms.

Examples of Grid-Tied Cyber Security Risks

Networks have become one of the main targets for cybersecurity attacks, and the grid     has increasingly acquired the stature of a network over the past 20 years.

Data Breach of Industrial Control System (ICS) Networks

A cyber intrusion of the U.S. electric grid, in which something like malware could be deployed, would involve taking over some portion of functionality and control that would otherwise be dispensed normally by the grid itself.

IoT (Internet of Things) and BotNet Malware

The Internet of Things (IoT) applies internet connectivity to devices outside of computers, changing the cyber infrastructure of technology to the extent that these technologies can be leveraged to to deploy botnet malware, which could lead to denial-of-service or other kinds of attacks. If these attacks were able to gain access to the ICS networks, they could potentially force the grid to operate based on manipulated conditions or false information.

Homes and Hospitals As Targets

According to energy.gov, most utility companies lack understanding of their cyber security posture, making utility companies less able to reverse and fix cyber-attacks aimed at dismantling specific portions of the U.S. power grid, for instance, large areas of homes and hospitals. Most Americans never realize just how much they rely on power supply until their phone battery dies, they’re without their laptops, no TVs, and no safe transportation. This is, essentially, being completely left in the dark. Additionally, without a secure power source, most Americans would not know where or how to gather information about an occurring attack once it happened. Given that knowledge is power, it’d be difficult for families, friends, and loved ones to coordinate a plan to stay safe, communicate, and weather the attack if one were to occur.  

A Tragedy of the Commons: A Call for Consumers to Take Action Via Solar

That which is most common to all has the least care given to it: We needn’t look any farther than the ocean garbage pyres, the volume of CO2 emissions in the Earth’s sullied atmosphere, or traffic congestion and waste on public roads to prove that point.

Unfortunately, the United States power grid, including its many interconnections (namely in Alaska and Texas), are also subject to this rule. The power grid is a huge public resource with many interdependencies, so establishing care for acute issues like cyber attacks targeted toward the grid is not necessarily made into the priority that it should be.

Although we interact with items the grid powers every minute, we do not interact directly with the grid as a power source, making it easy to forget how critical it is in our day-to -day, hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute routines.

How Much Power Do Consumers Have to Change The Level of Their Safety?

With roughly 30 countries in the world that could pose sophisticated cyber security threats to America and it’s U.S. power grid, and in convergence with 6G (sixth generation network, as opposed to 5G), Americans need to go solar and own their own energy production with backup as a form of energy continuity and means of staving off “the third tier of failure,” as highlighted by Electric Light & Power.

Consumers have more power than they realize in safeguarding themselves against the damaging impact of a cyberattack, and such a precept has been a part of America since its inception. However, we needn’t look back farther than the Geneva Conventions as an an example of how the population can make decisions in its best interest without government intervention or incentive. The Geneva Conventions were not created by Governments, they were created by civilians and for civilians, and organized by a citizenry involved in the Red Cross. Consumers can treat solar power similarly, and not just by practice, but also by leveraging the existing incentives that exist both nationwide and on state and utility company levels.

The Economics of Solar Power Coupled with Cyber Security

Energy independence via solar brings energy to the level of the home, making damaging cyber attacks less likely and tax dollars put to better use. Energy independence in the form of residential solar power is a decision homeowners can make for themselves, and with federal incentives like the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) applied to the cost of their system, which can save homeowners as much as 30% on the cost of their systems through the end of 2019.

The ITC will be reduced to 26% in January 2020. In addition to being able to go solar for zero out of pocket cost, many states that are both deregulated in their utility companies and regulated utility companies have state-based and utility-company based incentives that make solar even more worth the investment.  

The Grid as a Security Critical Infrastructure

In government security terms, the grid qualifies as part of our “Critical Infrastructure” (CI). To give you an idea of just how important this classification is, the grid relies on other components of the CI infrastructure, such as transportation and water. While cyber security experts and practitioners have devoted an increasing amount of time to protecting the Critical Infrastructure, they’re in agreement that it needs more surveillance and security given the array of CI interdependencies relevant to the grid itself.

The Tres Amigas Power Grid is one of the main national attempts to increase the reliability of the U.S. Grid. However, the project is not complete, meaning consumers must act individually to secure their power sources via solar energy in the near future, particularly in areas closest to the Texas Interconnection. The Tres Amigas SuperStation, located in New Mexico, is designed to be connected to our major power sources as a security buffer from terrorism. Even once the project is completed, it will likely not provide the level of security for individual homeowners that one can find in a residential solar solution.

Scott Cramer is President of Go Solar Group, a solar company in San Antonio, Texas; Reno, Nevada; and Salt Lake City, Utah.

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