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Lawmakers seek assurances from FERC on China-made solar inverters

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to work with other agencies to curb potential threats to the electric grid from equipment, including solar inverters, made by China-based Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.

The plea followed the Trump administration's decision in May to put up barriers to U.S. companies purchasing telecommunications equipment from Huawei over concerns about possible foreign intrusion and the manufacturer's link to the Chinese Communist party.

"Huawei-produced [solar] inverters connected to the U.S. energy grid could leave it vulnerable to foreign surveillance and interference, and could potentially give Beijing access to meddle with portions of America's electricity supply," the senators said in a Dec. 6 letter to FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Commissioners Richard Glick and Bernard McNamee. The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch, R-Idaho, and nine other lawmakers.

The letter explained that Huawei's solar products rely on inverters to convert energy produced by solar panels for use in homes and businesses. Although Huawei announced earlier in 2019 that it planned to exit the U.S. solar market, "there are no guarantees," the lawmakers said.

The senators asked for "assurances from you that [FERC] fully appreciates the threat posed to the nation's energy infrastructure" from Huawei equipment and for the commission and its new cybersecurity division to work closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy and other agencies, as well as the private sector and state and local governments, to curb those threats.

Worries over the risks posed by foreign-made solar inverters have grown as smart meters and other devices increasingly expose the power grid to potential cyberattacks and intrusions. Those threats have prompted calls from some security experts, including former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, for industrywide cybersecurity and manufacturing standards for inverters and greater scrutiny of such equipment if it is made by companies owned or controlled by foreign governments.

In a Dec. 5 tweet, Chatterjee said FERC "take[s] the threats posed by foreign suppliers like Huawei very seriously" and was working with the DHS, DOE, the North American Electric Regulatory Corp., and states to "curb threats [and] protect critical infrastructure from foreign attackers."

In October 2018, FERC approved NERC reliability standards to address supply chain threats and gave NERC two years to examine additional risks related to electronic access control and monitoring systems.