By Scott Aaronson, Senior Director for National Security Policy at the Edison Electric Institute
The National Geographic Channel’s docudrama, American Blackout, depicts a 10-day nationwide blackout caused by a cyber attack. The film’s fictional cyber attack causes significant physical damage to the U.S. electric utility infrastructure that within a day brings down the entire grid. Rather than nitpick about whether the blackout scenario depicted in American Blackout is probable, or even possible, I believe the film offers the opportunity to reinforce how the electric power industry constantly strives to make the grid more resilient.
The reality is that cyber threats are growing in frequency and sophistication, and the electric power industry takes these threats very seriously. Ensuring reliability and resiliency of the North American electric grid is the industry’s top priority, and addressing cyber threats is an important part of our reliability assurance strategy. The Edison Electric Institute’s electric company members understand their responsibility to deliver a product that is essential to our daily lives, our economy, and our national security. The electric power sector has a strong record of working to address threats to the reliability of the grid.
It is important to remember that the electric power industry is the only sector subject to mandatory, enforceable cybersecurity standards. These help to ensure reliable operation of the electric grid across all segments of the sector, from the largest investor-owned utilities to smaller electric cooperatives or municipally owned systems. While the electric power sector is often referred to as the most critical infrastructure sector, given the interdependencies across key sectors of the economy, it is misguided to label any one sector as “most critical.” Our reliance on other critical sectors, such as rail, fuel, finance, telecommunications, and government, reinforces that all sectors and our federal partners need to work closely to defend critical infrastructure from cyber threats, as well as be able to identify, assess, and respond to and recover from them when they do occur.
The industry’s response focuses on risk management, not risk elimination. There is no single solution that can make the grid completely safe and secure. That is why utilities constantly plan for emergency situations (both physical and cyber) that could impact their ability to generate and/or deliver power. In the event of physical damage to the grid, whether from a cyber attack, as depicted in the film, or a significant weather event, like a hurricane, utilities turn to the industry’s mutual assistance network. The mutual assistance network—a voluntary partnership of electric utilities from across the country—leverages the strength, skills, and numbers of participating utilities to help restore power efficiently during an emergency situation.
While American Blackout is a work of fiction, threats to critical infrastructure are real and pose a serious threat to our way of life. Electricity is our most prevalent energy source, and maintaining the high level of reliability that is expected requires ongoing planning and vigilance. The electric power industry will never stop working to make the grid stronger, more reliable, and more resilient in the face of any threat.