Protecting our electric grid
© Getty Images

As the federal government considers the use of national security measures to protect our nuclear and coal-powered electric generation plants, we must be ready to enact a comprehensive strategy to protect the entire electric grid.

The electric grid is the very backbone of our national infrastructure and must be made stronger, harder to penetrate and disable, and more resilient so power can be restored rapidly in the event of a major attack or outage. Upgrading the grid represents a critical national investment in our future ability to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, and will require major cooperation across multiple levels of government and the private sector. It must be done, and soon.

ADVERTISEMENT

We all know that a cyber-attack on the electric grid is a clear and present danger. Indeed, we have seen repeated warnings from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that we are under “a multi-stage intrusion campaign” designed to ultimately infiltrate the computer networks of “major, high value asset owners within the energy sector.” A year ago, another confidential government report made public detailed a narrower set of activities aimed at the nuclear, energy, and manufacturing sectors that U.S. authorities had been monitoring for months.

As an almost 30-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force with leadership experience in intelligence and cyber warfare, and as a current member of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection, I know we are highly vulnerable to a cyber-attack on our electric grid. Such an attack could have devastating, long-term consequences for our economy, our national security – for our very way of life. The Russian goal is to create chaos during a time of crisis, making it difficult for our nation to respond to their aggression.

Because a major cyber-attack on the electric grid is difficult to detect and prevent, and the potential consequences are so significant, our major focus must be to make the grid more robust (considerably harder to hack into and damage), more resilient (rapidly adaptable to changing circumstances and on-going threats), and easier to repair (able to be restored quickly).

Government agencies, regulators, academics, and the National Academy of Sciences have all been examining grid improvements for some time, and it appears all support the reality we face. Major electric grid upgrades and improvements are feasible, necessary and long overdue. Building on that work, I believe that the steps to strengthen the grid could include the following:

  • Conduct an independent, thorough and candid assessment of exactly where grid improvements and upgrades are needed, in order of priority. This assessment will provide the basis for a national plan that could drive short- and long-term grid improvements,
  • Allow utility company investments in equipment and technology to make the grid more resilient in the near-term to be recovered promptly,
  • Continuously implement industry best practices so that the grid keeps pace with evolving threats and solutions,
  • Ensure that any new grid standards are developed and implemented quickly to address rapidly evolving cyber threats in a timely manner,
  • Continue to explore the role of distributed energy resources that can be quickly isolated in the event of an attack, and thereby help prevent the spread of an outage and speed the restoration of power.

Today’s grid is a complex system of power plants, wires, poles, transformers, and cables that deliver electricity to hundreds of millions of homes, businesses, and critical service organizations every day. However, much of the grid sits above ground and was built in piecemeal fashion over the last 100 years, leaving it at risk to an increasingly sophisticated range of man-made attacks and the forces of nature. The system works well under normal circumstances, and many components have been routinely updated and replaced, but it is critical we build a 21st century electric grid.

Advanced technology and innovative solutions for grid challenges exist today, and many more are in the pipeline, allowing for an opportunity for the grid to make a quantum leap forward. Ensuring that our electrical backbone is as strong, resilient, and easily repaired as possible is a national security imperative, and Congress must play a leading role in establishing a policy framework that enhances the grid and ensures coordination and cooperation across government and regulatory agencies.

Bacon serves Nebraska’s 2nd District and is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture, Armed Services, and Homeland Security committees.