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Cybersecurity tops utility 'pain points' over communications, survey finds

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Cybersecurity tops utility 'pain points' over communications, survey finds

As utilities upgrade their aging communications networks to unlock the potential of smart grids, their most critical concern is exposure to hackers, a new survey of 350 utilities around the world found.

"The utility cyber threat environment has changed dramatically, and as assets become increasingly dispersed, new devices join the grid, and the number of third-party service providers grows, cybersecurity will become even more important," Zpryme Research & Consulting LLC said in an Oct. 17 report highlighting the survey results.

Cybersecurity topped the list of utility "pain points for communication networks," according to the survey, commissioned by smart grid technology provider Silver Spring Networks Inc., with 56% of respondents citing a cyberattack as their greatest communications concern, ahead of "obsolescence issues" and the difficulty of setting up and maintaining infrastructure. In addition to worries over new communication architectures, "older networks need attention, too, as they often can't address current security demands," the report added.

The results come amid rising industrywide alarm over the grid's vulnerability to hackers. Cybersecurity firm FireEye, Inc. earlier in October said it stopped hackers linked to North Korea from targeting U.S. power companies in an email phishing campaign in September. Computer security firm Symantec Corp. in September warned that a group of hackers with suspected links to Russia may have acquired the ability to disrupt North American and European energy facilities, while U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry in July confirmed that cyberattacks on American nuclear power plants are "ongoing."

Given such threats, as utilities modernize their electric grids, in part to accommodate more renewable energy on distribution systems, they must understand "the importance of building a set of comprehensive protections not only in the communication networks, but within the devices themselves," the report recommended.

Most utilities, however, do not feel entirely ready for the transition to smarter, more distributed and diverse grids with their current communications networks, the report said. Only 30% of survey respondents said they were "very" or "extremely" ready, while 53% said they were "somewhat ready" and 17% said they were "not very ready" or "not ready at all."

As utilities seek to better communicate with and integrate distributed resources into grid planning and operations, the majority plan to lean on fiber optic and radio frequency mesh networks over the next decade, the survey found. RF mesh, for instance, an important technology for communications in field area networks, was cited as "critical" for utilities' future success by 61% of respondents, while 55% called it "the key communications technology for our distribution grid modernization initiatives." The top use cases for RF mesh include distribution automation, fault detection and advanced metering.

Conducted in the summer of 2017, survey respondents were from electric, gas, water and other utility sectors, with 78% from North America.