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Utility experts warn lawmakers of potential inside attacks

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Essential Energy Insights - October 2021


Utility experts warn lawmakers of potential inside attacks

Industryexperts singled out the threat posed to the grid by operators themselves at aJuly 12 U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energyhearing. One industry executive urged lawmakers to give the FBI the power toassist in the screening of utility employees.

AU.S. Department of Energy official endorsed the Securing Energy InfrastructureAct, or S. 3018, at the subcommittee hearing on the bill. Patricia Hoffman,assistant secretary of the DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and EnergyReliability, told lawmakers that the DOE supports the bill's goal ofestablishing a two-year pilot program within the national laboratories toidentify security vulnerabilities in the energy sector. Hoffman also relayedthe DOE's offer to work with the committee and the bill's sponsor, Sen. AngusKing, I-Maine.

Testimonyby grid experts went beyond the usual discussions of the threats of hackers and"doomsday" scenarios of electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attacks tofocus on "physical" security vulnerabilities. "Theinsider threat is one of the largest factors that we face now," said DuaneHighley, president and CEO of ArkansasElectric Cooperative Corp. "We'd like to see you considerlegislation giving the FBI authority to assist the industry withfingerprint-based criminal and terrorist background checks so the people thatoperate our control systems we know don't have a bad background."

RobManning, vice president of transmission for the Electric Power ResearchInstitute, also warned of vulnerabilities. "[Y]ou're vulnerable from aninside actor who may give access to someone …," Manning said.

"Thecomplexity of the grid is by design," Manning said. "The grid isinherently more reliable because of that complexity, and it is the technologythat overlays it that has increased that reliability so it is becoming more andmore reliable. But the tradeoff is you have that greater threat vector outthere associated."

Speakingof a "doomsday scenario" of an EMP attack wiping out the nation'sgrid, Highley reminded legislators not to focus on just one area of security atthe expense of other vulnerabilities. "We could gold-plate everysubstation, but there's transmission lines coming in and out. So we have tobalance," he said. "We can't over protect one area and leave the restvulnerable."