Hacking the Electrical Grid (Part 2)

The United States actually did see its first grid-related cyberattack on home turf this year. According to E&E News, the incident only lasted for 5 minutes, and only caused minimal “blind spots” for the North American Reliability Corporation. But with it came an uneasy, unprecedented feeling that things might escalate or eventually see the same heights as Sandworm down the road. Since then there has been more urgency for utilities and grid operators to equip all systems with more than just simple firewalls.

In other news, America recently upped the ante on boring into the Russian grid as a warning to not manipulate the electrical grid here. Although more than likely just a power move, if the White House has truly planted malicious code inside of the Russian grid to surveil the networks and possibly manipulate it from afar, who’s to say that they don’t follow suit. With a more digital, connected world comes the opportunity for dominoes to fall.

Triton Malware and Other Dangers Like it

For a direct threat to electrical grids in the U.S., look no further than Triton – which is a family of malware that was solely built to disrupt and manipulate industrial control systems. Those industrial control systems relate to the various systems and control points for industrial processes in manufacturing, or more relevant to this subject, the energy industry. What hackers can accomplish with Triton malware, and malicious programs like it, is a shutdown of all safety sensors and failsafes, which is exactly what happened in Iran with Stuxnet

Stuxnet, a computer worm, has been dubbed the first digital weapon. Back in 2010 when it was used on an Iranian nuclear facility, it caused quite a stir when it utilized by the U.S. and Israeli powers to cause a nuclear uranium centrifuge to spin fast enough to break. Stuxnet had a double function to also relay back to security systems that everything was fine, when clearly everything was not fine.

This sort of digital attack could be utilized against us and our own industrial control systems: grids, factories, plants, and other valuable infrastructure could be attacked. It’s up to industrial systems to be fortified well enough to minimize any ‘back doors’ or potential for manipulation. 

A group of hackers named Xenotime has already started to test out the vulnerabilities of the grid system by doing more than 20 scans for vulnerabilities, but American cybersecurity experts believe that they’re a long time away from posing even a little threat. But the potential is always there, and they have started knocking on the door – testing the waters so to speak on various power grids.

Hacking the Electrical Grid (Part 1)

Perhaps the recent blackouts in California, as well as the dangerously low reserve margins that ERCOT faced in Texas this summer, were timely opportunities to reflect on the sometimes precarious state of centralized grids. And even more pressing is the fact that everything is now digitally connected, making it harder to unplug from centralized sources. 

Central sources (like central grids) are powerful tools for connectivity, but they are prone to hacks and unethical manipulation. A hack could mean a blackout, just like that, for days on end. It could mean that automated manufacturing equipment is knocked off lines or destroyed beyond repair leading costly interruptions in an already globalized supply chain; and it can mean a weaponized form of manipulation that affects our daily lives adversely. 

We will provide an overview on how the electrical grid has been hacked in other countries, and how microgrids seem to be an invaluable asset for backup measures, just in case an electrical grid hack happens to Texas in the near future. 

The ‘Sandworm’ Hackers

One of the most recent examples of electrical grid hacking include the attacks from the hacking groups Sandworm. They are well known for causing a blackout in Ukraine that saw 250,000 people without power for 6 hours. 

The Russian hackers in Sandworm did their damage by exploiting ‘back doors’  – entry points in vulnerable code – through malware attachments that allowed for surveillance and manipulation from personal computers to machinery in large factories.  Additionally Sandworm was responsible for the most costly cyberattack in history – NotPetya.

Sandworm carried out NotPetya through ransomware, which usually means that a person’s network is targeted and loaded with malware that locks everything down on the affected device with strict monetary demands (a ransom) required for its release. This particular ransomware wasn’t just one or two devices though: it hit entire networks in Ukraine, leading to 10 billion dollars in damages and affected businesses like: “ Maersk, pharmaceutical giant Merck, FedEx’s European subsidiary TNT Express, French construction company Saint-Gobain, food producer Mondelēz, and manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser,” as WIRED states. 

The scary part about the attack was just how fast the ransomware spread through all connected networks in the area and made their systems inactive. 

Because so many systems – ranging from dams, manufacturing plants, and electrical grids – are connected to networks, all it takes is a found vulnerability in those systems to potentially take down a whole network.  As Sandworm has shown in the Ukraine, and recent Chinese hacks that plundered U.S. intellectual property data, education on the topic will only become more and more relevant. 

Microgrids for Increased Security

Perhaps the best investment to make is in microgrids and increased flexibility for the grid. After all, microgrids are increasingly common in Texas and other states. Their presence would mean that, in the case of a large blackout induced by a cyber attack, there would be enough electricity to last until everything was brought back online.

Microgrids could exist on their own network – function as their own island as it were – so they would not be affected by an electrical grid outage. This would be a difference maker in case of a hack on the scale of Sandworm, if directed at the U.S.

Microgrids and Their Potential Impacts

Microgrids are quickly becoming the future of the power industry as the city of Austin, Texas recently experimented with microgrids as a way to lessen the impact and incidence of electrical blackouts. Essentially, they are investing in a lot of renewable energy infrastructure–solar panels, battery storage, and computer connected programs for smart control of energy.

With this DIY network of sustainably-generated and stored energy, away from the Grid with a capital G, they are hoping to achieve the goal of having readily available emergency energy in case there is a blackout. This would mean that hospitals, fire stations, and other crucial buildings will have the power they need to continue their important function. 

With climate change causing more unpredictable weather, the ability to have backup capacity on hand at the drop of a dime is becoming even more important. What microgrids provide is much more flexibility and an option to move away from the big, hunking electrical power plants of old.

Microgrid Basics

The impacts of microgrids will not adequately measured until the infrastructure has been built and tested for years. As many have stated, there’s not enough information and understanding just yet to fully bank on the technology, but it’s shaping up to be an exciting addition to grid capacity and security. 

A microgrid is pretty self-explanatory: it’s essentially a local grid that is connected to a major grid, but unlike the large grid, it’s small, flexible, scalable, and easily controlled. It has the ability to disconnect itself from a major grid if there’s a power outage. That ability makes it valuable because it can then add emergency power relief away from the offline grid. 

Microgrids for California Wildfire Relief

As wildfires rage in California, many are left without power: 738,000 customers to be exact. California is a leader in microgrid utilization, but wildfires are proving far too prevalent and destructive despite a massive push for microgrid expansion. In other words, despite all of the microgrids in California, many are still without power right now. California has invested a lot of money on microgrids, but it isn’t providing electricity because of just how large scale the fires have been. 

Despite those challenges in California, microgrids are continuing to make an immediate impact like at MSU in New Jersey. The university successfully disconnected themselves from the grid and turned the university into a self-sufficient “island”. This was necessitated by Hurricane Sandy (and future hurricane risk).

All in all, MSU and the efforts in Austin show that microgrids are a powerful solution to a problem that affects us all: extreme weather, climate change, and the subsequent power outages that occur. It might be best to give ourselves as much flexibility as possible. Microgrids can do that.

The EIA Electric Power Annual in Context

Sometimes the sheer magnitude of electrical data out there can lead to a staggering feeling of information overload. Given that the EIA just released their Electric Power Annual, it’s important to at least interpret a broad overview of the existing trends in electricity throughout the country. 

To name a few data points from the Electric Power Annual, the EIA shows that all total sales of electricity have risen steadily from the years 2008-2018. Full service providers sales have annually risen as well, but energy-only providers prove to be more volatile with their sales numbers. They are down considerably this calendar year.

Revenue has been up every year for the last decade in residential and commercial electricity. And as suspected, residential takes the lion’s share of sales when comparing both commercial and residential spaces. 

Texas is the largest user of residential electricity in the country with Florida and California being the next largest, respectively. Texas alone rose by 13,000 (thousand Megawatt hours) in a year’s time. This also means that Texas had the highest revenue derived from electricity sales with 17,610 (million dollars) according to the available data. This is up a lot since just 2017. And California is close behind.

Comparing with Global Energy Consumption

To use the predominantly increasing figures from the Power Annual and contrast it with the Global Energy Consumption report that the EIA just released provides a clear case that energy consumption is simply rising around all together. This isn’t that surprising given our increasing population, but it’s important to take note of.

Additionally, the EIA thinks that as standards of living are rising throughout the world, so too electricity demand will rise commensurately. 

China, Russia, and India will lead the pack for non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries with a monumental 2.5% increase in building electricity usage per year from now until 2050. Conversely, OECD countries (like America, Australia, and Canada) will only rise by 0.6% every year because of more efficient technology and buildings. 

By the time 2050 rolls around, OECD countries will decrease energy consumption by 3% and non-OECD countries will almost double their consumption. These are highly contingent on socioeconomic development and higher population densities. 

Perhaps we all intuitively know that with an increase in population marks an increase in energy consumption. But as technology gets better and the world more climate conscious, we will have to check in with EIA projections in years to come to see if estimates continue along the same trajectory. 

Texas Solar Energy Updates

A lot has been said about Texas wind and other pushes for renewable electricity generation, and solar is just as relevant a talking point. Texas is the 6th largest supplier of solar energy in the country, after all. Using that same 2018 data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Texas ranks 2nd in the country with a projected growth of “9,115 MW over the next 5 years.”

Yes, solar energy only accounts for 1.6% according to 2018 data from the EIA, but it is one of the fastest growing means for electrical generation on the renewable energy side. 

Large Companies That Are Leaning Towards Solar

To speak to just how fast solar is growing, Honda recently made the largest solar energy purchase of any automotive company: “482,000 MWh/year from a 200 MW Texas solar facility.” And according to Honda’s renewable energy goals, they plan on curbing 60% of their total fossil fuel-drive electricity usage by switching to wind and solar energy. 

And speaking of giant companies getting involved with solar energy, Exxon Mobil has been highly active in the solar boom. According to NPR, Exxon will purchase their solar power from West Texas for the next 12 years as per their agreement with the Danish energy company Orsted.

As the aforementioned NPR article reminds readers, Exxon had invested in the scientific research that developed photovoltaic technology. They were not the only investors that made photovoltaic research initially happen, but they definitely helped contribute to the overall development. But because of just how inefficient and expensive the earlier cells were, they didn’t seriously pursue diversifying in solar panels until now. This is largely because of the constantly decreasing prices of solar as well as well as their efficiency.

Plummeting Prices and Wider Use

MIT states that solar panel prices have fallen by 99% in the last 40 years. The biggest explanation for the drop in price has been for one major reason: “the largest single high-level factor in the continuing cost decline has been economies of scale, as solar-cell and module manufacturing plants have become ever larger.”

My San Antonio suggests rolling with the developing solar panel market and adopting rooftop solar as a way to prevent power plants from firing during peak demand times-where electricity prices to meet the increased demand. 

And although there are plenty of electrical transmission and storage challenges that are deterring solar projects, Texas solar will continue to expand along with the other renewable energy efforts.

Tornadoes Affect Dallas Electricity Customers

As if recent weather-related news in and near Texas wasn’t chaotic already, three tornadoes ripped through Dallas last week. Ten overall tornadoes were formed because of the storms that stretched across North Texas. These tornadoes left behind devastated stretches of land and also determined meteorologists who are still trying to piece together the path of the tornado, as well as the overall breadth of the damage.

Fortunately though, no one died despite the cluster of tornadoes. One of which reached winds up to 140 MPH, according to Dallas News. Texas Governor Greg Abbot declared a state of emergency as a result of the storms. At current estimates, there were about 2 billion dollars in damages, making it the “costliest tornado in Texas history.” Storms also hit Oklahoma and Arkansas, leaving fatalities and a lot of structural damage as well.

The question on the minds of many meteorologists and citizens is: is climate change to blame for the crazy weather? Given that the summer was unusually hot and conducive for tornadoes, it’s hard to count out the normal fluctuations of climate. Measuring the incidence of major storms, like these most recent ones, will have to be stretched out longer over years; but, in the context of “New Green Deals” and increased renewable energy efforts, it seems safe to say that climate has had something to do with it.

Power Outages in Texas? Meet Microgrids

According to Bloomberg, more than 200,000 citizens lost power as a result of the storms. This is similar but smaller than the recent outages in California because of the wildfires. Out of those numbers, around 99,000-112,00 Texans who were served by Oncor in Dallas, lost power. 

There was an interesting twist to the story though as a few stores still had backup power despite 140,000 (according to Microgrid Knowledge) being powerless within the Dallas area. And, as you guessed it, these stores had microgrids in place, just in case of a disaster comparable to the tornadoes.

The two stores are H-E-B and Buc-ee’s and they both used gas-powered microgrids-a welcome endorsement of the technology if there ever was one. 

As Texas, California, and the rest of the country experiences more extreme weather, the attention will continue to be placed on what can be done to offer more grid flexibility and to subvert downed transmission lines. 

It’s only a matter of time until there’s a wide scale adoption of the technology given that Buc-ee’s was able to provide power to first responders who needed the electricity. At the very least,  all hospitals and emergency stations within the hot zone for tornadoes and extreme weather will be equipped with backup energy via microgrids.

Amidst Blackouts, Does Texas Need to Build More Power Plants?

Because of the recent rolling electricity blackouts in El Paso and power plant outages in other parts of Texas, there has been a lot of talk about the need to build more power plants in Texas to saddle the extra demand on the grid.

In order to stop Texas from experiencing rolling blackouts, ERCOT urged consumers to conserve energy because reserve margins were dangerously low. 

But this begs the question: do we need to build more power plants to beef up the grid’s available electricity? And in that case, with coal plants being phased out, will this need lead to more pushes for net-zero plants like Net Power is building?

Let’s explore this topic a little more. 

What Causes a Blackout?

Simply put, a blackout is the result of a grid system failure or, to put it even simpler:  “In nearly every major blackout, the situation is the same. One piece of the system fails, and then the pieces near it cannot handle the increased load caused by the failure, so they fail.”

Blackouts result from severe weather as well, meaning that a lightning strike or blizzard can cause a transmission line to fail and the rest of the system fails in succession because of an overload.

Rolling blackouts are a less severe, more common form of blackouts, where grid operators systematically shut down certain areas to avoid an overloaded grid.

With all that being said, do we need more power plants as an added defense mechanism for the Texas grid?

So…Should Texas Build More Power Plants?

Here’s the thing: More power plants mean higher prices for consumers. But if we do not have the reserves available for rising electricity demands, then blackouts will become the norm. Neither the electric companies nor the consumers would welcome that change.

As Bloomberg states, (via Finance & Commerce) “The U.S. has become so awash in cheap natural gas and renewable power resources in recent years that electricity prices have, in some places, plunged below zero.” This means that the burden for electricity generation has fallen largely on the shoulders of wind farms in Texas, and not the coal factories, which are being phased out

It seems like at the very least, more natural gas plants need to be built while Texas continues its positive push into more sustainable energy and increased production of wind farms. Texas isn’t quite there yet for wind to provide the needed buffer while electricity demand is so high.

Many are seeing this as a wake up call for Texas to start the process on more power plants. We will see if this drives even more wind farms or if natural gas plant projects will emerge instead.