Smart Grid Security Issues: Cybersecurity Solutions to Consider
Smart grids report information in real time about the power grid. Based on this information, they can react to reduce the power supply when less is needed and ramp up generation during peak periods. Smart grids require connection to smart devices; this connection creates cybersecurity challenges that leave smart grids susceptible to cyberattacks.
Companies can combat smart grid security issues with appropriate and proactive security solutions. Electric utilities should invest in smart grid security solutions to protect the system from common security risks while allowing for continued innovation and sustainability in the electricity sector.
Common Security Risks to a Smart Grid System
The electricity grid is a complex network that delivers electricity from a power plant to the electrical consumer. According to the United States Department of Energy, the grid was first built in the 1890s. It has more than one million megawatts of generating capacity across three hundred thousand miles of transmission lines. There are more than 9,200 electric generating units that supply the grid.
A smart grid uses technology to communicate information between all the pieces of the power network, including the consumers, transformers, and generation plants. To make this system work, homes and businesses use smart meters to relay information about a location’s energy needs. Smart grids are most common in larger cities. As more locales update their traditional grid infrastructure, smart grids are becoming more common.
The following examples are a few benefits of smart grids:
- Smart grids increase the flexibility and efficiency of energy production by supplying the exact amount of energy that the consumer needs. Increased efficiency allows for more intermittent methods of energy production—such as renewable energy sources like wind or solar—because the smart grid knows how to predict energy needs.
- Smart grids are self-healing, which also increases energy efficiency. When power system failures happen, the smart grid can detect and isolate outages and reroute electricity to continue meeting consumer demand in an alternative way. The self-healing capacity of a smart grid is particularly useful during natural disasters when access to heating, cooling, light, and communication can be lifesaving.
- Smart grids provide the opportunity for transactive energy, where anyone can trade electricity on the grid. For example, traditional consumers can generate electricity through methods like solar panels on a building’s roof. This participation in the electricity market shares responsibility and helps balance the energy supply and energy demand across more parties.
Smart grids are worth pursuing because of these benefits. However, it’s important to understand the common security risks and the measures to implement to protect against attacks. Smart grid security risks fall into one of three categories: attacks against the device, attacks against the communications, and attacks against the system.
Attacks Against the Device
Cyberattacks against the device mean a threat against any IoT devices, or Internet of Things devices, that can connect and exchange data with other smart grid devices over communication networks. The device that malicious actors most commonly attack is the smart meter. Smart meters contain data about energy usage in a building, which these actors can exploit to predict when a homeowner or property owner will likely be away.
Attacks Against the Communications
Another threat to smart grids comes when a malicious actor monitors or alters messages in the smart grid network. For example, a malicious actor can intercept information about your energy consumption to determine when you have downtime to plan an attack on the property. Or a hacker could modify smart grid communications to reduce a power bill.
Attacks Against the System
Attacks against the smart grid infrastructure are often the most disruptive and lucrative for hackers. These attacks target network operators, generation plants, and utility companies. The goal is to disrupt the delivery of a utility to cause disorder and extract ransom payments.
Security Challenges in Smart Grid Implementation
Smart grid cybersecurity is important in smart grid implementation and operation because there are many opportunities for attacks to occur. The renewable energy grid communicates with numerous devices, all of which have the potential to be attacked. This communication uses the following three types of networks:
- The home area network (HAN) operates in a small area, such as a house or a small office. A HAN has a low data transmission rate and connects smart appliances, thermostats, and other smart home devices over the internet. Data from these devices transmits to smart meters using the HAN so homeowners can limit appliance energy usage during peak times.
- The neighborhood area network (NAN) operates on a larger scale, such as a few urban buildings. Multiple HANs can connect to one NAN before transmitting energy consumption data to the smart grid network.
- The wide area network (WAN) operates across several miles. Multiple NANs connect to the WAN. Then, the WAN handles communication for all the smart grid’s components, such as transmission and distribution.
Utility companies create the smart grid by connecting these networks and facilitating two-way communication between the consumer and the producer. Engineers can monitor energy consumption and reduce the need for costly peak power production using data transmitted through the smart grid.
Despite these benefits, cybersecurity challenges can occur, most commonly in the following areas:
- Privacy: When utility companies install a smart meter in private homes, they start collecting personal information and trends about the household. This information is valuable to a variety of groups. For example, criminals can use consumption data to plan times for a burglary. Or law enforcement can use the same data to monitor activities like suspected drug production.
- Connectivity: With the increased connectivity of devices in a smart grid, attacks have the potential to inflict more damage. For example, a malicious actor might be able to infiltrate several components within the system because they are all interconnected. If a hacker brings down multiple components, there is a greater risk of damage, loss of efficiency, and outages.
- Security management: In a smart grid, there are many more devices that need to be seen and managed by the utility company. It’s important that consumers trust the utility provider with their data, so companies need to monitor individual devices for potential cyberattacks. This monitoring requires additional staff resources and processing capacity that isn’t required for managing a traditional grid.
Proposed Security Solutions for Smart Grids
Supervisory control and data acquisition, or the SCADA system, is an industrial control system for monitoring large-scale processes that span a wide geographic area, such as power plants. Modern SCADA systems use distribution automation instead of manual labor to perform electrical distribution tasks. With distribution automation, devices like digital sensors and switches automate processes, monitor voltage and equipment health, and manage the overall energy system.
Smart grid security technology can greatly benefit smart cities by protecting citizen privacy and minimizing service disruption. Although there are cybersecurity challenges for smart grids, you can find a security solution to mitigate the overall risk and take advantage of smart grid benefits. Because distribution automation increases the number of devices used in your infrastructure, it’s important that your smart grid security solution protects all the potential entry points. Let’s look at several proposed security solutions that protect against cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities.
With encryption, you can scramble your data so that it can’t be read by anyone without access. The process uses a cipher to store your data in a secret code. Without the cipher, hackers that try to intercept your data can’t glean any valuable information.
Authentication and control access policies require users to verify their identity using predetermined authentication mechanisms before they can access the system. These techniques, like certificate-based authentication, biometric authentication, and token-based authentication, help ensure that your system grants permission only to users that you know and approve.
A virtual private network uses multiple security measures, including encryption and authentication, to protect data as it’s transmitted across a network. Remote access virtual private network gateways allow users to access resources stored on a virtual private network while using a remote device.
Network Intrusion Prevention System and Network Intrusion Detection System
Network intrusion prevention systems monitor and analyze network activity to identify potential threats. If the system identifies a threat, it can notify your security team and respond using actions like closing access points or configuring firewalls. Network intrusion detection systems can also monitor and identify threats, but the system doesn’t act in response. Your security team uses the system’s reports and analysis to determine the best action to take.
New Approaches to Grid Security
More cities are transitioning to using smart city services to improve efficiency, sustainability, and convenience. Smart cities rely on information generated from sensor devices and transmitted between producers and consumers that don’t belong to the same administrative domains. Because this data is valuable and malicious activity continues to get more sophisticated, it’s important for smart cities to adapt and try new approaches to security solutions.
Future Threat Landscape
Over the past several years, members of the electric utility sector have strengthened security measures to protect against potential cyberattacks. As a result, there haven’t been any public, disruptive attacks in the last several years. However, it’s important for electric companies to continue to be proactive and not rely on previous security measures.
Dragos Inc., a company specializing in industrial cybersecurity, released the Global Electric Cyber Threat Perspective report in 2021 outlining the future threat landscape based on the company’s analysis. According to the report, future threats are likely to target industrial control systems and operational technology systems. Dragos Inc. identified eleven active groups targeting utilities, and the company believes two of them are capable of causing disruptive events to industrial control systems.
Additionally, in April 2021, the United States government kicked off a one-hundred-day plan that aims to improve the cybersecurity of electric utilities’ industrial control systems. The government partnered with electric utilities to address vulnerabilities in this new threat landscape.
Considerations for New Approaches
There are many options for new approaches to smart grid security. As institutions and electric utilities consider new approaches, it’s important to keep the following factors in mind to find a solution that continues to meet these principles:
- Strike a balance between security and performance. Increased security measures might reduce system capacity and affect performance.
- Invest in technology that protects, detects, and responds. All three capabilities are vital for a complete cybersecurity solution.
- Practice transparency because smart meters collect private consumer data. It’s important to build trust with your consumers by being transparent about your security measures and the way you use this sensitive data.
- Recognize that cybersecurity is a key function of quality, but there is no perfect solution. Because every security grid is different, utility companies should learn from others but recognize that one solution does not fit all.
Solutions to Smart Grid Security Issues
As smart devices become more common and connected over the internet, smart grid security issues become more of a priority as well. Smart grids are more efficient and flexible, helping consumers use less energy and facilitating more alternative energy sources. With this great opportunity comes the responsibility to invest in cybersecurity solutions that ensure consumer privacy as well as access to utilities. Electric utilities need to continue adapting to changing cybersecurity threats to support security solutions that fully protect the smart grid.
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