Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami, Spread and Secure the Grid

Power Grid

March 16, 2011 By Larry Karisny

In a recent smart-grid summit at the Miami Beach Convention Center, the power went out right in the middle of a smart-grid security-panel discussion between Southern Power, Cisco and Atmel when the lights dimmed falling back to alternative power. To the audience, it was just a minor inconvenience. Florida after a hurricane is another matter, and Japan is now facing catastrophic events with the recent earthquake, tsunami and radiation leakage from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

With Japan in mind, we need to further define the importance of smart grids, their design and their security requirements. As seen, the potential lose of power though natural or man-made causes can range from an inconvenience to a global catastrophe.

First and foremost the loss of life and the continued suffering of the Japanese nation is recognized and requires immediate global attention and support. We also need to learn from events as they relate to the policies and technology of global smart-grid initiatives.

A recent article by Christine Hertzog , Catastrophe and Grid Resiliency reported that the regional utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) instituted rolling blackouts to address a 25 percent shortfall in generation capacity. This statistic alone clearly defines how centralized power and distribution (nuclear or not) are potentially big problems when destroyed by natural or man-made catastrophic events.

The results of centralized power production, transmission and distribution combined with limited power grid network intelligence is being clearly demonstrated in Japan. Another article in intelligentutility, Smart Grid More Attractive, Post-Japan noted if smart grid demand-response plans were in place, the utility (Tepco) could have avoided cutting power to Tokyo's rail service, which apparently compounded the national sense of confusion and resulting economic fallout.

This same lack of grid intelligence is responsible for many costly power outages. A study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) researchers Kristina Hamachi-LaCommare and Joe Eto for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution estimates that electric power outages and blackouts cost the U.S. about $80 billion annually. The need for grid intelligence and a more resilient and intelligent power-grid infrastructure is clear.

Although natural disasters offer chilling examples of power infrastructure devastation they really are not the biggest threat to our global power infrastructures. Limited power-grid security combined with centralized power production and distribution would cause massive outages if breached. These little publicized breaches have occurred globally and are becoming more of a concern in both existing legacy-grid networks and new smart-grid network designs.

A recent InfoSec Island article, Scientists Decry Cyberwar as Governments Respond by Dan Dieterle clearly reported the concerns of cyber attacks on our power grid quoting the concerns of high-level government officials and scientists. There is little doubt in the article about the potential of a power grid breach. The question is how to defend against an attack.

Both grid security and resiliency need to be built in all current production, transmission, distribution and demand grid sectors. We can accomplish this by designing power production sources with secure and interoperable micro grids that can support both existing and upcoming alternative power sources. Power production differs depending on what the source of power and cannot always be decentralized. A good example is Hydro One harnessing the power of Niagara Falls. There is no one size fits all when designing power requirements for a region but now is the time to recognize the importance of properly building more diverse and secure smart-grid topologies. The modern smart grid is designed to become more reliable, safe and secure. It is these very attributes that Japan needs today. As we support this great nation in their difficult time and address this terrible disaster, let’s also use this opportunity to reflect on building a smart-grid infrastructure that will securely serve our needs today and for many years to come.