Industry regulators have begun compliance audits this month on mandatory reliability standards for the nation’s bulk electric power distribution system, a step toward implementing critical infrastructure protection standards for the U.S. power grid.
“It’s a big step,” said Joe McClelland, director of the Office of Electric Reliability at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “It’s the first time they’ll have a critical infrastructure protection standard.”
As the power grid becomes more automated and its control systems networked on a large scale, the system's cybersecurity is becoming a critical issue. The security standards for the system require that operators identify critical cyber assets that support reliable operation of the electric system, using a risk-based assessment. Violators can be fined as much as $1 million a day.
But some security experts say the standards do not go far enough. The technology of the electric grid was designed with the expectation that it would be a private network rather than an interconnected IP-addressable system, and the security standards focus largely on reliability rather than network integrity.
“I don’t think in today’s world that is even close to being adequate security,” said Jack Danahy, chief technology officer of Ounce Labs. “There has to be a more expansive understanding of what security means.”
The cybersecurity of the power distribution system is taking on more urgency with development of a new interactive smart grid and recent reports that hackers have compromised the current grid.
FERC is the government overseer of the U.S. power grid under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, but the audits are carried out by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the industry’s designated international self-regulatory authority. Despite FERC’s authority, there is still a high degree of self-regulation in the power system. NERC developed the security standards, which FERC can approve or reject.
FERC approved the current Critical Infrastructure Protection Standards this year. FERC will review the audit results and take part in a number of them. “Not every audit,” McClelland said. “Just to check to see how they are being conducted.”