A Less-than-Obvious Connection of Great Import: Secure the Smart Grid to Improve the Environment

If you consider yourself a friend of the Earth, then you have good reason to be a Smart Grid security advocate.
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OK, the onus is on me to make the connection credible. But first, let's get a couple of definitions out of the way:

Smart Grid: This is complicated, but before it gets to us, the electricity we unconsciously draw from outlets often travels across hundreds of miles of rickety suspension bridges of overloaded and aged wires, monitored by overworked and aged utility workers. This unfortunate situation is part of what causes blackouts, brownouts, and other problems that are making our electrical infrastructure less than optimal, or at least, less reliable than we'd like it to be in the US of A. The somewhat esoteric-sounding term "Smart Grid" refers to a high-tech solution to these woes: by layering modern computer and internet technology on top of the current electrical system we can greatly improve its efficiency, flexibility and reliability. We can also pave the way for new, cleaner energy sources like solar and wind power.

Smart Grid Cyber Security: But because our approach to improving the current grid includes computer and Internet technologies, at the same time we're making it better, we're making it easier for cyber criminals and other bad guys to break in and cause big trouble. In order to ensure that the new Smart Grid is reliable and dependable, we've got to add the same types of modern computer security protections that currently do a good job of protecting our online financial transactions as well as our telecommunications networks.

OK, got that? Now here we go. I put it to you that if you consider yourself a friend of the Earth, then you have good reason to be a Smart Grid security advocate. You find this less than intuitive...a bit simplistic? Well, try thinking of it as another application of biotech -- a technological solution to a biological problem. Here's how it works in six easy pieces:

  1. Most would agree in 2010 that the future well-being of the environment is enhanced by greatly reducing our use of fossil fuels and replacing them with cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar

  • In order to use very large-scale renewable energy, we're going to need an updated electrical grid that can handle the variability of wind and solar.
  • This new grid, which some refer to as the Smart Grid, will be flexible and intelligent enough to handle the intermittent nature of renewables, but due to its highly interconnected nature, will also be an easier target for online international trouble makers, criminals of various stripes and home-grown cyber malcontents.
  • If the Smart Grid is shown to be susceptible to attack too many times, our collective early confidence in it will quickly wither, we'll be left with the current grid, and large-scale renewables will remain on the sidelines.
  • There are ways to secure the Smart Grid, and many companies and government agencies are working right now to ensure it's as safe, secure and reliable as possible
  • So if the Smart Grid can be made secure, we can continue to build it with confidence, slowly and surely swapping out fossil fuels, and for the first time, powering our economy and nation with sustainable clean energy
  • While there are many different pressures on the environment, two of the most significant come out of smokestacks and tailpipes. No matter which side of the climate change debate you're on, there's been little disagreement that the ways we've generated electricity and powered our cars have taken a toll on our bodies and the natural environment in the forms of toxic gases and particulate emissions.

    That's changing with the arrival of grid-scale wind and solar renewables, their smaller, geographically distributed siblings cropping up on and around homes and small businesses, and electric and hybrid electric vehicles. While it's going to take a while for these technologies to mature and displace fossil fuels as our primary energy sources, there's a prerequisite project of enormous importance that's underway right now.

    According to EcoAlign and Russell Research [hyperlink:], as recently as a few months ago, only 30 percent of Americans recognized the term Smart Grid. Heck, one-third of young Americans can't pinpoint Louisiana on a map and nearly half are unable to locate Mississippi.

    Yet for the past several years utilities around the country have been rolling out new high-tech meters, updating and interconnecting their computer systems, and deploying additional high voltage lines to improve the efficiency and reliability of the grid, as well as to help move wind and solar energy captured in rural places to cities where we find most of the demand.

    It almost goes without saying, but just to make sure we're on the same page, even in the windiest parts of the country, wind speed varies widely in the course of each day. Why is that? Go ask a meteorologist. And all of the sunniest spots in the lower 48 experience at least eight sunless hours every 24. Yet the demand for electrical power never stops, and that's why thousands of coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants are kept running around the clock, lighting our lights, powering our appliances, charging our cell phones, and trashing our environment in ways too numerous to mention.

    Renewable energy is an attractive alternative, but there's a rub. A wind farm that's generating enough electricity to power part of a large city one minute can suddenly lose almost its entire output when the wind dies down, and to keep our energy-intensive world from grinding to a halt, the grid needs to be smart and flexible enough to rapidly bring in power from other sources and locations. So as the affordability of renewable technologies gets better every year and wind and solar farms spring up around the country, the challenge of their intermittent natures becomes more pressing. Absent the Smart Grid and other planned improvements, the current grid will keep us from taking full advantage of clean energy from the wind and sun.

    What's more, you don't have to dig too deep on the Internet to find some people (must be part of the 30 percent) are quite worried about the Smart Grid's susceptibility to cyber attack. They seem sure that malicious hackers both within and outside our borders are ready to pounce on Smart Grid computer systems and networks, turn off generators, blow up substations and scramble Smart Meters by the millions. Yet that's precisely why a huge number of industry and government organizations and coalitions are working on security standards and technologies to hasten the arrival of a Smart Grid that's as secure as possible, and that responds to computer and other threats hundreds of times faster than what we have today.

    As the song goes, "the toe bone's connected to the foot bone, the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, etc." In this case, as our well being is inextricably linked to the health of the planet, so are both linked to our ability to remake our electrical grid while keeping it secure, sow new farms with abundant clean energy resources, retire coal plants by the hundreds and gasoline-powered automobiles by the millions -- and keep the whole enterprise safe from those who might seek to disrupt it. If we can acknowledge and understand the connections between these seemingly disparate tasks, we can confidently bring about the energy transformation upon which so much depends.