Utility and Communications Networks: Mutually Interdependent, Constantly Converging, And Critically Important



By: Peter Kelly-Detwiler & Richard E. Harrison

Countless new distributed generation, storage and other network-enabled assets are linking to the U.S. grid daily, including vast quantities of renewable energy. 

To accommodate all this, utilities must increase situational awareness across the grid all the way to this growing base of assets – the new “grid edge”. Doing so will increase utility reliance on information and communications technology (ICT) networks which, in turn, rely on the grid for power.  

This convergence and growing interdependency must be fully understood as networks are built out. Security measures must be implemented to protect critical elements of both systems from cascading failures and other unwelcome outcomes. 

ICT And Utilities Continue to Mutually Evolve

Utility environments have incorporated ICT for decades. One of the first applications of modern computers was the use of analog machines in the 1950s to monitor grid power flow. This led to improved planning and management capabilities. 

In the 1990s, local area networks began tying centralized and previously isolated utility supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) to each other, increasing overall grid coordination. 

As the number and diversity of connected assets have increased and analytics have become more important, the trend has been to interface SCADA operating technology (OT) environments to ICT networks. This combination has helped operators gain a more granular picture of the increasingly complex grid, improve efficiencies and plan capabilities in multiple areas.

During the next phase of ICT/OT integration, utilities will increase their reliance on digital technology and ever-increasing granular data. They will lean on artificial intelligence to help manage these complexities and rivers of information. In fact, utilities such as the self-identified “digital utility” New York Power Authority are already rapidly moving in that direction. 

It’s Five O’clock: Do You Know What Your Water Heater Is Doing?

In the U.S., an estimated 30 million digitized resources populate the grid. These include smart-connected thermostats, water heaters, batteries, inverters and vehicle charging stations. These devices can change behavior rapidly to respond to grid or market conditions. They can also be used to cripple the grid.

Meanwhile, more than 70 million advanced meters – nearly 47 percent of all meters in the U.S. – measure consumption and collect billing data at least once an hour. The most sophisticated meters collect and transmit this data instantaneously. They can interact with other linked peer devices, communicate rapidly across multiple interfaces, and connect to numerous telecommunications networks. 

All these technologies create vast streams of data the ICT network must make available to utilities for analysis and increasingly automated decision-making. As a consequence, utilities are migrating from their former reliance on proprietary (and relatively secure) internal SCADA networks to an increasing use of information tied to the Internet. While these systems are enabling the transformation of the modern grid, their dependence on the Internet requires new, advanced security capabilities to keep the grid secure.

This ICT/OT marriage is also happening across much of the conventional generation asset base. New predictive platforms are being paired with operating information to improve plant efficiencies and economic outcomes.

These developments are already leading to improved efficiencies across the energy ecosystem. Unfortunately, the increased interdependence of the ICT and electricity infrastructure has also heightened mutual vulnerabilities. 

The ICT Network and The Grid Depend On Each Other For Survival

The modern grid is fundamentally reliant upon vast streams of accurate and timely data. At the same time, the ICT ecosystem depends upon the unfettered flow of electrons to function. If one system fails, so does the other. 

Life today is driven by electric power – our society simply cannot do without it. And the threats to the power grid are real and growing rapidly. Industry, state and federal agencies must accelerate their efforts to assure that U.S. utility and communications networks remain secure, viable, resilient, and capable of providing mutual support. Strategies to harden each system must be challenged and expanded. Resilience procedures already in place must be analyzed to determine the level of system failure that can occur while still mitigating overall risk and limiting damage. Critical connected assets must be segmented to limit threat exposure. Redundant capabilities must be developed and expanded.

Granted, absolute fail-safe physical or cyber security is not possible. However, the faster we as a nation implement measures to protect the interdependency of our utility and communication networks, the better prepared we will be to thwart those intent on destroying it.

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