Amid the recent flurry of what the US government says are Iranian cyberattacks on US power companies (announced in late May), it is becoming increasingly clear that the country’s power grid infrastructure needs a major overhaul to improve national security. Iranian hackers allegedly gained access to control-system software involved in the monitoring and functionality of oil or gas pipelines along the Canadian border, where many firms have operations.
The US government believes the latest cyberattacks were sponsored by the Iranian government and that the national power grid is the next logical threat. Constructing a smart grid infrastructure is one preventive measure to protect the US power grid, which includes the upgrading of analog components, power meters, sensors, and information technology.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are stepping up pressure to boost cybersecurity in the utility power sector. Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) issued a report a few weeks ago citing lapses in the computer networks running the nation’s power grid. Based on a survey of 150 power companies, the report found that over twelve utilities reported either daily, constant, or frequent cyberattacks attempts and one even quoted it was the target of about 10,000 per month. The report found that many electric utilities were not implementing voluntary added precautions promoted in recent Congressional legislation being considered, making them vulnerable to threats.
The US has an aging and outdated power grid infrastructure that requires a major overhaul to lessen the likelihood of blackouts and disruptions from either intended or unintended mishaps in control and functionality. During President Obama’s first year in office, he dramatically supported smart grid technology as the solution and offered $3.9 billion to boost this sector in the Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus program.
It was envisioned that this funding would continue and spur a revolutionary upgrade to the nation’s power grid, fueled by a significant transition towards renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal that would require a more interconnected and smarter grid system to incorporate these fluctuating sources of power.
It didn’t happen. Congress failed to pass comprehensive clean energy or carbon cap-and-trade reform, which would have accelerated the building of a whole new smart grid infrastructure that would have been not only more efficient in transporting power over long distances, but also less prone to cyberattacks.
However, the market for smart grid sensors in North America is predicted to double in size over the next two years, according to a study published in late May by IMS Research. The report, entitled The North American Market for Smart Grid Sensors — 2013, discusses the significant transition that is happening with the feeder line sensing market in North America. Feeder lines are the power lines leaving a generating station and going to a power substation; or the lines leaving a substation and going to multiple customers.
Sensing at this point won't provide as much detail in power usage, but until all customers have smart meters installed, this will provide very useful information to the power utility companies. This is an important market trend to be involved in — the IMS report calls out annual revenue reaching or exceeding $100 million by 2015. Older devices are being replaced by next-generation decentralized grid intelligence and automation technologies that are offered by new market players, several of which received stimulus funding in years past.
Companies such as Analog Devices anticipated smart grid component growth back in 2009 during the announcement of Recovery Act smart grid initiatives by President Obama, and this company acquired PowerBUS RHINO power-line communications technology, a small privately-held Canadian company to boost its market-leading portfolio of products for energy-metering applications. Its power-line communications can transform any stand-alone meter into a device that can be controlled or monitored either locally or remotely. Signals are sent and received over existing power lines or twisted-pair wires, and negate the need for the installation of new wires or assemblies to support smart grid applications.
China has invested aggressively in smart grid technology for both domestic use and for elevating its manufacturing base. It will be interesting to see if the US increases federal funding for a smarter grid to prioritize not only energy security, but national security, amid the potential for foreign cyberattacks.