Vermont Law School Report Identifies Barriers to and Best Practices for Protecting Electric Distribution Grid from Cyberattack
Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment today releases a new report, “Improving the Cybersecurity of the Electric Distribution Grid” that address the growing threat of a cyberattack on our nation’s electricity distribution grid. The report was commissioned by Protect Our Power, a non-profit organization focused on grid security. The report identifies barriers to addressing the growing risk and presents best practices to assist state electric utility commissions and their regulated utilities to increase investment in enhanced security.
The nation’s electric distribution network needs increased investment to address the growing threat of a cyberattack. Aging legacy equipment combined with the rise of a “connected” grid are creating an enticing target for attack. Investment in new technology and training is needed to reduce system vulnerabilities and increase system resilience. State electric utility commissions play a vital role in assessing the need for and the cost recovery of investments in cybersecurity. This report focuses on the pathways for increasing investment across the distribution grid.
Richard Mroz, Protect Our Power’s senior advisor for state and government relations, former president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and former chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Critical Infrastructure Committee, said the study offers valuable insights into a complex problem that is rife with confusion and cost challenges. “As a former state regulator, I know how difficult it can be to strike the right balance between the need for new investments to protect critical infrastructure and the potential cost to electric ratepayers,” Mroz said. “This report highlights the clear challenge for industry and regulators but also case studies of how this challenge is being met to secure the grid.”
The solution to cyber vulnerabilities is not to simply increase investment. New investment must target high priority areas of need in a manner that protects ratepayer interests. Key areas where action is needed include: (1) increased sharing of confidential information between utilities and regulators, (2) improving commission engagement with cooperatives and public power utilities; (3) enhanced resources for smaller utilities, (4) reduced regulatory obstacles to utility investment, and (5) new metrics for assessing a system’s security performance. Each identified issue is paired with proposed solutions, including who can act.
According to Mark James, project lead and assistant professor with Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, “Electricity powers everything that we do. Every day the cyber threats to our electric distribution system grows. A sustained, wide-spread attack on our electric grid would be economically devastating and pose serious health hazards.”
“Our research identifies pathways for utilities and utilities commissions to reduce barriers to investment and increase system resilience. Our report is built on interviews with utility executives, system analysts, former commissioners, and public utility commission staff to assess where vulnerabilities exist and how those vulnerabilities could be addressed. We reviewed dozens of utility commission filings and critical government reports to identify best practices. Action is needed to reduce the risk of a cyberattack on the nation’s distribution grid and this report provides concrete steps towards a more resilient grid.”
The Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School provides accessible resources on contemporary energy law and policy with a focus on a cleaner and more resilient grid of the future. The IEE distributes scholarly, technical, and practical publications; provides forums and conferences for professional education and issue development; and serves as a center for graduate research on energy issues, with environmental awareness. IEE research associates are selected from the top students in the energy and environmental programs at Vermont Law School, top-ranked in the nation for environmental law. For more information about the IEE, visit www.vermontlaw.edu/energy.
Protect Our Power is an independent, not-for-profit organization seeking to build consensus among key stakeholders, decision-makers and public policy influencers to launch a coordinated, comprehensive and adequately funded effort to make the nation’s electric grid more resilient and more resistant to all external threats.