Another Threat to the Electric Grid

Photo by Peter Craine. Some rights reserved.

Back in May, we posted about an external threat to the electric grid – solar storms. That possibility seemed pretty exciting, and warranted a really cool picture; check out our post here. Today, we cover another threat, more quantifiable but maybe less exciting – the inability to respond to deliberate cyber attacks on the electric grid.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff has been pushing for cybersecurity reforms at the federal level for years. Currently, regulators have limited ability to respond to most threats to the electric grid: FERC’s jurisdiction does not reach the distribution-level utilities that run 97% of the nation’s power lines. No federal agency has the power to direct such a broad swath of energy infrastructure, but Wellinghoff suggested a starting place. First, FERC needs to be able to confidentially communicate threats to utilities, and second, needs some sort of enforcement authority.

On Thursday, FERC acted on its own to establish a division dedicated to mitigating cyber threats on the electric grid, despite lacking any additional enforcement authority from Congress. The new office’s initial focus will be on communicating with private-sector firms about cyber vulnerabilities – the current limit to federal authority.

Though Wellinghoff has been lobbying for increased cybersecurity enforcement authority for six years, legislation on the issue is stalled in Congress now. The White House is circulating a draft executive order on cybersecurity that would set standards to which infrastructure networks like the electric grid would adhere on a voluntary basis, so even if Congress is unable to address the issue this session, it will certainly remain on the table in the future. Some Congressmen, like Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, describe the electric grid’s vulnerability to attack as “one of the single greatest threats to our national security.”

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