- The nation’s power grid remains at risk from cyberattacks, scientists and security executives told a Senate committee Thursday, but new research at the Department of Energy’s national laboratories and private firms could build a more secure, resilient system.
- One project at the Oak Ridge national lab aims to create the “darknet,” a private communications and control system for the grid that utilities and grid operators would use separate from the public internet. Advances in quantum communications on that system could add even greater security, witnesses said.
- The hearing was also punctuated by the pressing power sector issues of the day, including comments about the DOE’s cost recovery proposal for coal and nuclear plants, and the ongoing struggle to restore power in Puerto Rico.
Cybersecurity issues are front-of-mind for utilities after a series of high-profile hacking attempts targeting the grid and power plants in recent years. As recently as this summer reports surfaced that hackers, thought to be connected to the Russian government, breached more than a dozen U.S. power plants, including nuclear generators.
Many of those risks could be minimized with the introduction of a more secure grid communication system, said Richard Raines, director of electric and electronics systems research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Oak Ridge last month was awarded a DOE contract to lead development of the “darknet” — a secure, private grid communications system for utilities utilizing unused fiber optic cables.
“Darknet in its most simple terms is a way to get the communications and control of the electric grid off the public internet,” Raines told lawmakers. “The goal is to develop methods so these attacks are automatically detected, isolated and defended by achieving a self-aware, self-healing network.”
Such a communications network could provide benefits beyond security, Raines said.
“Darknet is not just about moving the grid's command and control functions off the public internet, nor is it just about the unused fiber we have,” he said. “It is about the leveraging — creating a holistic toolkit of capabilities to make it harder for an adversary to exploit our system.”
“We envision darknet as a highly secure, resilient and redundant communications, sensing and technical assistance solution supporting all elements of the electric enterprise and the supply chain,” he added.
The darknet system could be made even more secure with the introduction of quantum communications technology, said Duncan Earl, president and chief technology officer at Qubitekk, Inc.
Quantum technology converts communications into light particle impulses, rather than the electrical signals of traditional internet and phones, and sends them over fiber optic cables. The process “enables communications that cannot be intercepted or altered,” Earl said.
“Quantum technology uses the laws of quantum physics to generate secret keys that cannot be cracked. The keys are transmitted as light through optical fibers to devices in the field,” he told lawmakers. “Although quantum physics, with its demonstrations of teleportation and particles existing in parallel universes, can sound like science fiction, its application to grid security is real and near-term.”
But the U.S. is behind in the quantum communications game, Earl warned. China has already “developed and installed the foundations for a nationwide quantum network that leverages both fiber optic and satellite based communications.”
“Last month they demonstrated the first-ever quantum secured video call between China and the European Union,” Earl said. “Earlier this month, they committed $10 billion to the creation of a massive new quantum information laboratory in Eastern China.”
Quantum technology was created in the U.S., Earl noted, but “our hesitation in its implementation has left us far behind in the quantum race.”
Some utilities are ready to start darknet and quantum communications pilots, witnesses said, but the pace of adoption is a “question of funding,” Earl said.
“The [cyber division] at DOE is doing a great job but they don't have a large enough budget to take on darknet yet,” he said, “so at least from my perspective increasing funds to that program is an excellent thing to do right away.”
The largely technical hearing shaded into higher-profile power politics at times. During his question time, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a reliable ally of the coal industry, asked the witnesses if they felt “concerns that the baseload may not be able to energize the grid.”
“PJM got collapsed in the last polar vortex, you all know that right? Manchin said. “They came within a sliver of going down.”
Carl Imhoff, director of the electricity market sector at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said reliability assessments show the grid to be strong.
“We've seen no evidence that there is a lack of capacity to deliver in terms of frequency response and other things on the power system,” Imhoff said. “Certainly there are changes in some of the resources in the mix and NERC findings as well as the reliability councils do not indicate that there is a gap there that's an issue. They're having to change some of the processes and all but I think we are at adequate capacity.”
Correction: A previous quote misattributed a quote about DOE darknet funding to Richard Raines. It was said by Duncan Earl.