ImageHow should electric utilities be adjusting to the 21st century? It seems with the explosion of smart grid technology across the country, and the world, utilities will now be accountable for something that has previously not been an issue: cyber security.

Smart technology enables utilities to collect data and monitor the status of the electric grid. While this technology is extremely beneficial to both the utility and end users, it comes with risks of intrusion. This is not only a problem for utilities, but the entire nation. More sensitive information is transmitted wirelessly now than ever before, and utility information is no exception. Electric utilities must act fast to ensure all data exchanged via smart grid technology is secure.

A concern among most consumers is the security of smart meter transmitted data, which is a privacy issue that must be addressed by all utilities. More alarming, however, is the possibility of sensitive information regarding grid vulnerabilities and any other information being used maliciously. As the National Academy of Sciences reported late last year, our nation’s electric grid is “inherently vulnerable” to terrorist attacks, in addition to the severe weather and high demand that has always plagued our electricity infrastructure.

In 2012 the Department of Energy (DOE) issued an official notice that utility companies should make cyber security a top priority going forward.  The initiative also calls for all utilities to appoint a security officer who will report to upper management.  Previously, in the era of manual meter-reads and paper billing, these positions were largely unnecessary for electric companies.  However, with the amount of information being shared over networks linking together the emerging smart grid today, a security team should be in place in every utility.  The recent passage of the National Defense Authorization ACT (NDAA) of 2013 will allot federal funding to DOE national security programs, so there should be funding in place for all utilities to add crucial security measures to their operations.

For the first time in history, our electric utilities will not only be responsible for keeping our lights on, but also for safeguarding vital information that has been labeled a matter of national security.  The evolution of an electric grid that transmits data and communicates information from point to point is revolutionary and will no doubt lead to great improvements in our energy use.  But, as with any advancement in technology, there is risk involved.  Fortunately with the NDAA and DOE addressing the issue of cyber security already, hopefully we will lock down our vital data before it leads to additional vulnerability.

Image: Utility Meter via Shutterstock