In 2007, directors at the Idaho National Laboratory had their researchers play the role of computer hackers for an afternoon. Using the Internet to access an on-site electrical generator’s computer code, the “hackers” were able to reprogram the machine to destroy itself, demonstrating a key vulnerability of the U.S. electricity system. Though this experiment — labeled Project Aurora — was just a test, the threat is very real. A recent poll of electric companies completed by the National Electric Reliability Council found that many utility IT professionals are handling up to 150 attempted cyber-intrusions per week.
The U.S. military is confronting these types of grid vulnerabilities head-on via numerous avenues. One current effort, the SPIDERS project (Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security), will address security needs and fragility of this country’s aging electric system by installing microgrids on several domestic military bases.
Too often, small disruptions to the system create cascading problems. The 2003 Northeast blackout, for example, affected 50 million people and cost $5-14 billion in lost economic activity. That event, triggered by a few tree branches brushing against high voltage transmission lines in Ohio, highlighted how minor events can result in huge consequences. While this type of incident is an inconvenience for you and me and a cost to business, the stakes are much higher for the military.
Military missions, including homeland security and defense efforts, can be compromised by a blackout. Project Aurora showed how enemies could target the electricity grid using Internet-based methods. Beyond that, the country’s grid faces more routine threats from wind, weather, or even small animals interfering with and knocking out transmission lines. The Department of Defense recently assessed these concerns and labeled the issue as an “unacceptably high risk.” Clearly, the grid is overdue for an upgrade.
Reinventing Fire, RMI’s roadmap to a U.S. energy future free of oil, coal, and nuclear power, identified both military and civilian microgrids as a potentially important lever for improving the long-term security and reliability of our electricity sector. A microgrid is a section of the overall grid that typically operates in routine conjunction with the rest of the grid but has enough generation, storage, and intelligence to function independently in emergencies. The military microgrids will provide this security by incorporating renewable generation, energy storage, demand-side management, and back-up fuel cells or diesel generation. While these components will allow a base to operate in an emergency and help support the community it’s in, by incorporating “smarter” technologies, the microgrid will also run more efficiently and require less power generated by fossil fuel-powered plants.
Introducing more touch points in the grid through new distributed generation and demand-side technologies will create reliability and efficiency benefits, but may also present security challenges. Additional access points to the grid theoretically open up new cyber-security holes for potential attackers. The military, however, is leveraging its expertise to develop secure technology to manage the microgrids. The military plans to test the security strength through exercises simulating attacks once its microgrids are up and running. While cyber threats may never be eradicated, decentralizing power production and distribution via microgrids can significantly decrease the impact of future threats.
Over the past few decades, the military has pioneered several key technologies that have subsequently found their way to the civilian world — GPS, microwaves, and the Internet to name a few. The SPIDERS program carries the same ambition. Even though the military is just starting to build out its microgrids, it is already working on plans to transition the technology to the commercial sector. And that’s a good thing. While the military’s microgrids will help strengthen our national security, wider commercial microgrid adoption will be integral to improving our electrical security and reliability. That security and reliability are key to supporting commercial success and improving personal welfare.