Early this year, Rep. John Carter (R-TX-31) introduced the “Securing Energy Infrastructure Act,” which would require all energy grid systems to have an analog backup. Carter partnered with Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) on the bill.
Power generators are currently controlled digitally, and the grid overall has grown vastly more complex and expansive as our energy needs have expanded.
The bill is a companion of one introduced by Sen. Angus King (I-ME) that passed the Senate in July of this year. Inspiration for the bill originated from the 2015 cyber-attack on Ukraine during which state officials were able to get their systems back online because they were backed up analogically.
Analog backups are essentially switches that must be flipped by a human operator. Digital backups are controlled by automated computer systems.
The worry is that, like in Ukraine, a sophisticated enough cyber-attack could knock out the broader power supply while also preventing the automated system from recovering quickly. An analog backup would provide a mechanical stopgap measure in case of an emergency.
Rep. Carter said of the bill, “Addressing the weaknesses of our energy infrastructure should be a top national security priority. This bipartisan legislation will help identify issues and develop solutions that could one day prevent disastrous consequences from a cyber-attack.”
The United States’ energy grid comprises of three regions: one for the East Coast which stretches as far west as New Mexico; one for the West Coast which stretches as far east as Colorado and Wyoming, and one for Texas known as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).
ERCOT provides power to some 25 million people with 46,500 miles of transmission lines and over 650 generators.
In 2017, Texas consumed 13,366 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy. A British thermal unit is defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit.
In 2018, Texas generated 376,019 Gigawatt hours of energy. Of that, 45 percent came from natural gas-related sources; 25 percent from coal; 19 percent from wind; and 11 percent from nuclear.
Each of these sources combine to equal the electricity output for Texas’ grid.
Should an attack successfully obstruct the generation-to-consumption process, much of our day-to-day lives would be rendered next-to-impossible.
A 2017 study by the University of Maryland found that a cyber attack happens once every 39 seconds. Most of these are low-level breaches and not even close to the level of sophistication needed to knock out a whole energy grid. But the Ukrainian example opened many security officials’ eyes to the scope of a possible attack.
“The old analog relays and circuit protection devices were as reliable as the day was long,” a paper published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated in 2015. It concluded, “One thing’s for certain: the current approach to grid protection works well for reliability but will not stop skilled, adaptive adversaries, for whom our current methods virtually guarantee success.”
Those in opposition to this approach say it is costly and can become a hassle to ensure the manpower necessary to operate the mechanical backup. Nigel Stanley, chief technology officer at Britain-based TUV Rheinland, told Forbes, “The problem is that this is costly in terms of manpower and requires access to suitably qualified and experienced staff to take over the system if it fails.”
A source with knowledge on the situation told The Texan, “In theory it’s smart, and it’s what China does, but they have the cheap labor to make that feasible.”
“To have a manual backup for all of our power plants would require five to 10 years of training,” the source added. Notably, the supporters of the analog backup want to identify certain, key assets to protect instead of retrofitting the entire system.
Another wrinkle in this proposal is America’s increasing implementation of renewable resources into the power grid.
The unreliability and storage limitations of renewables throw more variables into the mix which a manual backup must take into account. China can handle this because of its extensive manpower and its state-run energy system. Some believe analog backup is not feasible here due to our limitations in human capital.
However, as data and power systems become increasingly high-tech — and bad actors become equally sophisticated — the technology of days past is increasingly being looked at as a means to better secure America’s future.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.