MSEE Infographics

Keeping The Lights On — And Hackers From Crossing The Power Lines

The electric grid in the United States suffers from multiple issues, including inefficiency and high cost. Smart technologies have been touted to solve these and other operational difficulties. Yet, a shift can bring its own problems as well. Mixing power delivery with digital technologies opens up the possibility of disruptions caused by malicious entities. This threat must be seriously considered and mitigated with a carefully crafted strategy.

To learn more, checkout the infographic below created by the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Online Masters in Electrical Engineering program.

Keeping The Lights On — And Hackers From Crossing The Power Lines

Electric Grid Facts

What most people do not know is that a large part of the US electric grid was actually built post-World War II. The early designs were based on Thomas Edison’s work, which underscores just how old they really are. The entire system is made up of over 7,000 power plants that are responsible for generating energy and ending this out through 450,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines and 2.5 million miles of feeder lines. 3,300 utility companies, that serve the needs of 150 million customers in different states, manage this massive network. The estimated value of the system is at $876 billion.

The Cost of Power Disturbances

Homes and business both need an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Any disturbance can cause major problems. It is disconcerting to note that power outages in the US have shot up 285% since 1984. What’s more, the country lags behind other industrialized nations in terms of the average length of outages.

The result is up to $96 billion in losses for the economy, with as much as $70 billion coming from weather-generated outages. To put things in perspective, just one hour of power interruption can wipe out $2 million from semiconductor manufacturing, $2.5 million in credit card operations, and $6.5 million in brokerage operations.

The Smart Grid: Cost and Applicability

So, what actually is a “smart grid”? It is the infusion of advanced communications and control strategies to the electricity delivery systems using modern technologies with the aim of improving efficiency, security and reliability. Proponents do not hide the fact that this shift will require a large investment but they argue that the resulting savings make it a worthwhile endeavor.

The Electric Power Research Institute estimates the cost to be between $338 and $476 billion over a 20-year period. The change is already happening with almost 2 million advanced metering infrastructure installed in 2013 and about 65 million smart meters to be installed nationwide throughout 2015.

The Benefits of Modern Technologies

The foremost benefit of the shift is increased energy efficiency. This happens in two ways: a reduction in energy use and a decrease in transmission losses. More of the power generated in the plants will be able to reach the end users.

Next is the boon to the environment. Using advanced technologies is projected to lower overall carbon dioxide emissions by 58%. There will be a significant reduction not only in greenhouse gases but also in other pollutants. What’s more, there is stronger support for renewable energy sources. Gasoline-powered vehicles will also be more readily replaced with plug-in electric vehicles.

As for the direct financial benefits, the improved resilience to power disturbance will save the US economy roughly $49 billion every year. Customers will collectively enjoy as much as $2 trillion in benefit over the next 20 years.

Potential Risks of Smart Grids

On the other hand, everyone needs to watch out for the potential risks. These include increased exposure to attackers, network vulnerabilities, compromised hardware, more opportunities for denial of service attacks, and breaches of customer privacy. The top vulnerabilities are related to privacy and cyber security.

For privacy, understand that 5 million smart meters read once every 15 minutes will produce 14 petabytes of personally identifiable information. Regulatory requirements could demand that this information be kept for a minimum of 7 years. The gargantuan network is at least 100x bigger than the Internet making management and monitoring quite difficult.

For cyber security, experts warn that a major cyber attack on the electric grid could have devastating consequences on the US economy. The damage can reach $1 trillion in losses and a further $71 billion in insurance claims. This fear has real basis with 15 suspected cyber attacks on the US grid since 2000.

Keeping Things Safe

Personally identifiable information needs to be protected to gain consumer trust. The system should have solid host-based defenses against outside and inside attacks. There must be an annual assessment to spot vulnerabilities and deal with them. There should be virtual private network support, a robust authentication protocol, and third-party review to plug all the gaps.


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