Energizing Security to Protect Communities

The recent uptick in security-related incidents targeting U.S. electrical substations and utilities has set off alarm bells. With a 71% increase in incidents over the past year, experts predict that this worrying trajectory will continue into 2023 and beyond. More than mere numbers, these incidents pose a direct threat to citizens, neighborhoods, vital industries, and the national economy.

The increasing number of attacks on utilities poses a multifaceted challenge for city administrations, both public and private entities, and local communities. According to the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC), various forms of attacks such as gunfire damage, equipment sabotage, security breaches, and vandalism are on the rise. These incidents have occurred in clusters, impacting numerous regions across the country.

During a technical conference convened by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), Eric Rollison, assistant director of the U.S. Energy Department’s Office of Cybersecurity, emphasized the “heightened threat environment” surrounding the industry.

Additionally, a NERC report noted a marked increase in physical security incidents since 2020, with significant outages reported in substations in North Carolina, Washington state, and California. Varied motivations, from economic theft to ideological extremism, add layers of complexity to this issue, complicating the work of law enforcement and local governments.

Electrical substations and public utilities are critical to modern society, providing power to residences, offices, healthcare systems, and various modes of transportation. A single attack on these vital nodes can lead to a domino effect of disruptions. For example, a major power outage in a North Carolina county in December 2022 left 35,430 utility customers without power, a crisis exacerbated by evidence of tampering at two key substations.

The financial ramifications of these security lapses can also be debilitating. Following an incident, utilities may experience surging insurance premiums, face liabilities, and even suffer reputational damage. They may also could entail penalties and the need for corrective measures to preempt future occurrences.

Protecting the U.S. electrical grid — comprising more than 55,000 substations and extensive transmission lines — is no small feat. While traditional approaches like fences, video surveillance, security by environmental design, and adequate lighting have provided some level of deterrence, they fall short.

Traditional solutions often also serve a more reactive role, aiding in post-event investigations rather than actively thwarting incidents.

Among emerging tech, proactive solutions show promise. SaaS offerings deliver the capabilities needed to get ahead of risks.

For example, remote video monitoring combines real-time video surveillance with the immediacy of operator intervention. This proactive approach empowers trained operators to intervene immediately, delivering a live, customized voice down to deter criminal behavior. Rather than just recording incidents for later review, utilities can use existing camera technology combined with video analytics to identify and counter threats in real time.

The future of security solutions for the utility and critical infrastructure sectors is centered around integrated artificial intelligence technology. AI is immensely powerful as it can enable a once-passive system, like traditional video surveillance, to automatically identify unauthorized movements or actions. Then, a remote operator immediately intervenes and delivers a personalized message. An example is, “You in the yellow shirt with the black hat.” This action informs the intruder that they’ve been identified, and if they don’t leave, authorities will be dispatched to the site.

In cases where the intruder remains unresponsive, specialists promptly contact local law enforcement and other relevant parties to ensure a rapid and effective response. This solution is particularly beneficial for providing security to remote utility sites where traditional security approaches fall short.

While the current threat landscape is challenging, it’s not without remedy. Innovative tech and collaborative efforts like public-private partnerships can achieve a secure and resilient energy landscape. Advanced technology and services offer immediate intervention capabilities, something not feasible with traditional methods.

The urgency for innovative, adaptive security strategies has never been greater. Through investments in technologies and protective processes, and a dedicated commitment to enhancing security measures, the industry can turn this sizable challenge into a stepping-stone for stable, long-term growth. The clock is ticking, and the risks are substantial, but a fortified and resilient energy future is attainable.

A version of this article appeared in the November issue of Power Grid International.

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