The United States, the birthplace of Thomas Edison and the first commercially successful electric bulb, but the history of commercial use of electricity in the US actually started in San Francisco in 1879, when the California Electric Company, which would later become Pacific Gas & Electric or PG&E, started selling electricity produced at its plant to customers using transmission lines. It wouldn’t be until after Edison’s light bulb changed the world in the next century that electricity would move from a rare oddity used by early adopters to a commercial necessity. That led to the rapid build out of the U.S. electric grid, the power transmission system used to transport energy across the country. Unfortunately for us, that electrical grid has been aging and we haven’t kept up with its maintenance, which makes it very vulnerable to disruption. And I’m not just talking about downed power lines. There is a fear that in today’s world, the U.S. power grid is highly vulnerable to cyber-attack and represents an Achilles heel that no one really wants to talk about.
That’s why both houses of Congress introduced legislation this week to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission new authority to address emergencies and vulnerabilities in the country’s electric grid. The legislation will allow FERC to issue emergency orders to protect the electricity infrastructure from threats and that’s because experts rank America’s abilities to ward off potentially damaging cyber-attacks against its utilities near the bottom of all industries.
Part of the concern of network professionals is that there is no sense of urgency about these vulnerabilities, despite the fact that we are seeing numerous cyber-attacks against these kind of facilities around the world, from Israel to the Ukraine. In fact, cyber-attacks against these kind of soft targets are now the norm, the new Cold War if you will, where countries pit their smartest techs against the other guy’s smartest techs.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the latest upgrades to the electrical grid, the so-called smart grid, are built on devices that are connected to the Internet by default. If the old, tired grid is vulnerable, what does that say about the smart grid?