How Safe is Our Energy?

When most of us think about cyber-attacks, our biggest fears involve stolen identities, hacked credit cards or vulnerable personal information. There is, however, another type of cyber-attack that has the potential to deliver a much more physical and catastrophic impact. Despite this, it is one that is not often discussed. Attacks on the U.S. electrical grid are more frequent than many realize. A recent study by the Department of Homeland Security Department’s Industrial Control Systems Cybersecurity Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) cited energy as the second-most-targeted sector, with the largest number of attacks involving the nation’s manufacturing sector. ICS-CERT found that the number of cyber-attacks it responded to had increased by 20 percent from the previous fiscal year.
How can we protect our nation’s power supply and ensure that our energy remains secure? As U.S. experts work to ramp up cyber-security, the federal government can also increase the reliability of our energy supply by modernizing the electrical grid and coupling traditional sources with renewable energy technology.

Multiple news outlets have begun reporting that terrorist groups are increasingly turning to cyber-attacks on our electrical power companies as a means of threatening the United States. In early January 2016, the same Department of Homeland Security team that released the study on cyber-attacks issued a warning about the vulnerabilities of electrical power infrastructure. Power plants and factories are increasingly utilizing industrial control systems that can be vulnerable to being hacked. These control systems are computers that operate essential processes in energy plants and manufacturing facilities. Because these systems are connected to the internet, it is impossible to protect them completely.
Cyber security is increasingly important not only in regards to homeland security but in international relations as well. In September of 2015, the United States and China began working to seek a sort of arms deal for cyberspace that would have each nation commit not to use cyber-attacks against either country’s critical infrastructure during peacetime. This would include power stations, cellphone networks, banks and hospitals, all of which are vulnerable to these types of attacks. Unfortunately, the final agreement was much more limited than the original scope of the plan. The two countries agreed that neither would conduct cyber-attacks to steal intellectual property. Although this is a step in the right direction, it does not secure our electrical infrastructure, utilities or manufacturers from cyber threats. We must find additional ways to protect our nation’s power supply by not only developing more comprehensive agreements like this recent one with China, but by increasing the reliability of our electrical infrastructure at home.
There are ways that the United States can increase the reliability of our energy supply by choosing materials that are efficient and reliable. Copper is essential to creating efficient, modern and reliable electrical infrastructure. Its natural properties of high conductivity and durability keep everything from motors and transformers to wiring and cabling running dependably and at high efficiencies. Nearly 1 million distribution transformers are produced and sold annually in the United States alone. Virtually all electric power in the country passes through at least one of these units before it’s consumed. By using premium, high-efficiency, copper-wound units instead of lower-cost options, electric supply will be more reliable and will even result in significant savings over the life of a transformer.
Similarly, copper can increase the efficiency and durability of the electric motors that power our commercial facilities and industrial plants. Electrical energy consumption can be greatly reduced by replacing older, worn-out motors with energy efficient equivalents and by specifying energy efficient motors in new equipment. Such practices not only lower energy costs, but also improve equipment reliability.
Recent legislation, including the Energy Policy Modernization Act, aims to support these goals by incentivizing higher-efficiency technologies. The Energy Policy would establish rebate programs for systems like motors and transformers that utilize the benefits of copper to increase efficiency. It would also help to enhance cybersecurity safeguards. For example, it would require new research into how to protect the grid against cyber-attacks and would authorize the Secretary of Energy to protect the bulk power system from cyber-threats in an emergency. Comprehensive energy policy needs to be undertaken in order to increase the reliability of our grid.
While modernizing our traditional electrical infrastructure is vital, another important step in securing our power supply is increasing our use of renewable energy technologies. As energy storage becomes more affordable and accessible, it will provide a greater potential to store energy from wind turbines and solar PV systems. This storage can serve as a backup energy source if the traditional grid is interrupted. These renewable technologies also rely on copper to function. In fact, they require more copper than traditional energy sources. PV solar power systems contain approximately 5.5 tons per MW of copper, while grid energy storage installations rely on between 3 tons and 4 tons per MW. A single wind farm can contain between 4 million and 15 million pounds of copper. The use of copper wiring, tubing, busbar, cable, bushings, bearings and myriad electrical and mechanical parts keeps these systems operating longer and at higher efficiencies.
Renewable energy can be limited by natural restrictions so energy storage allows us to utilize these technologies in a way that is dependable. New market trends – like Tesla’s home energy batteries that begin rolling out this year – will continue to change the landscape of energy storage and make it even more useful as a backup power source. Whether stored by homeowners or utilities, stockpiling energy from sustainable systems can only increase the reliability of our power supply.
Moving forward with comprehensive energy legislation that modernizes our traditional grid and supports renewable installations is essential to protecting electrical infrastructure. Until cyber-security leaders can develop an impenetrable method for shielding power companies from cyber-crime, these alternative measures must be examined in order to keep our power from being interrupted. 
Zolaikha Strong is director of sustainable energy for the Copper Development Association.

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