Big Question: How Can Microgrids Protect Us from Grid Hackers?

Sept. 4, 2014
Do microgrids offer protection from grid hackers or create a point of vulnerability? What microgrid security systems, processes or software can help?

Grid hackers are hard at work trying to takedown the US electric system. The US government and private security firms report both foreign and domestic attempts are growing in frequency

In the interest of advancing ‘microgrid knowledge,’ we will periodically pose a big question that’s been on the editors’ minds. Please share your expertise with our readers by posting answers on MicrogridKnowledge.com or on our Microgrid Knowledge LinkedIn Group.

  • One utility reported as many as 10,000 attempted attacks monthly and others said they fend off attacks daily or constantly, in a Congressional report released last year. http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/index.php?q=news/markey-waxman-report-highlights-gaps-in-grid-security
  • Homeland Security warned that a public utility “was recently compromised when a sophisticated threat actor gained unauthorized access to its control system network,” in a May report.
  • Hackers are actually discussing at conferences how to infiltrate the electric grid, according to Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer at Trend Micro, who was recently interviewed by Lisa Cohn.
  • Attacks on energy infrastructure represented 40 percent of the cyber incidences handled last year by Homeland Security

Perhaps most worrisome, a federal report leaked by the Wall Street Journal in March warned that bringing down just nine of the 55,000 substations in the US in a well-timed attack could shut down power to much of the nation for an extended period.

Microgrids are often cited as a protective device should the grid be hacked on a mass scale. They can island from the main grid and in essence block themselves from being infected from whatever is causing the outage. Meanwhile, the microgrid continues to provide power within its borders.

Microgrids also can offer a kind of protection in numbers. They are distributed throughout the grid, so can’t be targeted by hackers in one swoop, as large swaths of the central grid can.

So far we have thwarted major cyber-attacks on US energy infrastructure. So we’ve yet to see microgrids in action during an attack. However, we have seen  microgrids successfully island keep the lights on during other kinds of calamities. The performance of Princeton University’s microgrid during SuperStorm Sandy is often cited as an example.

At the same time, some are warning that distributed energy creates its own vulnerabilities. Smart meters and enewable energy systems are described as a myriad of relatively unprotected entry points where hackers make inroads.

Is the same true for microgrids?  Do they offer a point of vulnerability or a point of protection to the larger grid when it comes to cybersecurity? What microgrid security systems, processes or controls can help?

Please let us know your thoughts by posting answers in the comments section of MicrogridKnowledge.com or on our LinkedIn Group, Microgrid Knowledge.

Thank you.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

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