MODERNIZING UTILITY INFRASTRUCTURE

The need for utility companies to migrate to smart grids was kickstarted by the growth of renewable energy sources that needed grid connectivity in remote places. To maintain market agility, utilities had to adapt to increase their focus on value-added services to monitor, control, and manage customer energy needs. Sierra Wireless has published a report on the key insights into building safe security solutions for the smart grid network to mitigate risks.

This report on the modernization of utility infrastructure takes into account the need for utilities to transition to smart grids and also addresses the need for improved security for their smart grid network. In a smart grid, utilities can integrate traditional grid infrastructure with sensor and communication technologies to collect and process large amounts of data. But with growing security concerns due to the remote controlling of millions of devices, utilities will have to include security management as well in their infrastructure management concerns.

Current Utility Landscape

Utilities in the market realise the need to move towards modern infrastructure as it will increase network communication, automate the management of elements, and introduce remote management functionalities. This realization is mainly due to customer demand for reliable, intelligent, on-demand service at a fair price. It has led to global efforts to upgrade existing utility grids to smart grids that have better efficiency and reliability of the supply chain.

Smart grid infrastructure and technology helps automate the metering process which, in turn, leads to cost savings, better monitoring and maintenance of grid infrastructure, higher efficiency, and increased reliability that provides better customer experiences. With increased flexibility in the monitoring and managing of a variety of different energy sources, any new sources of energy can be flexibly integrated into the grid, which will be a huge benefit to customers.

However, these new changes can also pose new challenges. With the introduction of smart technologies, comes an increased dependence on Information Technology (IT) and connected technology. These tools can render the smart utilities more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Especially since smart technology deployments in utilities often advance without adequate security implementation.

Smart, But Not Always Secure

Cyberattacks can affect utilities by suddenly shutting off the power to thousands of customers. This poses a huge threat and increases the need for cybersecurity to function as a part of utility hardware, systems and networks. Cybersecurity must be ingrained in human awareness and training for employees, executives, and partners.

In 2017, The United States Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) conducted assessments of 130 energy facilities, government facilities, transportation systems, and water and wastewater system sectors. They were able to identify 700 vulnerabilities and estimated weaknesses in their assessments. Out of the top six vulnerabilities, five were procedural or process-related issues.

Top Six Weakness Categories in Utility Industrial Control Systems (ICS)

  1. Boundary Protection–There was a risk detected due to the presence of weaker boundaries between the Utility ICS and enterprise networks. There was also unauthorized activity detected in critical systems.
  2. Identification and Authentication–There was a lack of traceability for user actions if an account was compromised and increased difficulty in securing accounts as personnel leave the organization.
  3. Allocation of Resources–There was no backup or alternate personnel present to fill a position if the primary personnel is absent from work. This led to the loss of critical knowledge of control systems.
  4. Physical Access Control–If personnel are granted unauthorized physical access to field equipment and locations, they might be able to maliciously modify, delete, or copy programs and firmware. They might also be able to add rogue devices to capture and retransmit the network’s traffic.
  5. Account Management–Compromised unsecured password communication was noted that allowed trusted unauthorized access to the systems.
  6. Least Functionality–In a field test, rogue internal access was established and this increased vectors for malicious party access to critical systems.

Best Practices in Smart Grid Security

  1. Identity and Access Management–Create and manage identities for personnel that may be granted access to the organization’s assets. A good idea would be to use centralized authentication.
  2. Situational Awareness–Collect, analyze, alarm, present, and use operational cybersecurity information to form a common operating picture. To do this a device management system can be used with centralized authentication.
  3. Industrial Control and System Challenges–Although it is difficult to physically secure thousands of remote utility locations, communication equipment can be utilized to implement security controls. A security service in the ICS network can limit access from remote sites and detect intrusion attempts.

Conclusion

Securing smart utilities and grid infrastructure is crucial. The need to improve resilience by developing physical and cybersecurity solutions, analyzing and assessing impacts to minimize future risks, and providing situational awareness during energy-related emergencies is key to building a secure network. The involvement of public organizations, service and solution providers, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), and other partners in the task of security management will ensure the safe modernization of grid utility infrastructure.

To check out the whole report, click here!

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