Networked computer systems have allowed power companies to operate more efficiently, to pinpoint outages more quickly, and to offer cheaper, more reliable service to customers.
They have also, security experts say, exposed every node in the network to potential hacking.A coordinated cyber-attack on power-generating or transmission plants could lead to a "nightmare" scenario in which hackers exploit weaknesses in the grid and disrupt or damage power supplies.
"Understanding [the electrical power] system's vulnerabilities and reliability is a crucial step toward improving its security," said researcher Chee-Wooi Ten from Michigan Technological University.
Computer technology is distributed throughout the entire grid, experts say, including residential smart meters, instrumentation for local wind and solar power-production sites, and the management and instrumentation systems installed in power plants, substations, and control centers.Each one of these is a potential entry point for malware-wielding hackers.
"Ten years ago, cyber-security simply didn't exist – it wasn't talked about and it wasn't a problem," Ten said. "Now with events like in Ukraine last year and malware like Stuxnet, where hackers can plan a cyber attack that can cause larger power outages, people are starting to grasp the severity of the problem."
Computerized instruments automated much of the power grid, from electricity generation to transmission to end-use sites.Automation improves reliability and reduces costs, but it also makes the systems vulnerable.The grid's interconnectedness means cascading faults can lead to blackouts, equipment failure, and local blackouts.
Existing security standards could be brought in line to meet today's risks, researchers say, but hacking technology evolves quickly, and the agencies that administer electrical grids must become more agile in responding to new threats and vulnerabilities.
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