Why The Smart Grid Might Be A Dumb Idea

Coral Davenport | Nextgov | July 15, 2013

Foreign hackers don't just pose a threat to classified material, corporate secrets, and individual pri­vacy. Security experts say the greatest cyberthreat to the United States is the fact that the Chinese and Russian governments—and possibly other players—have succeeded in hacking into the nation's electric grid, giving them the ability, if they wish, to bring the U.S. economy to a screeching halt with the click of a mouse.

Such an attack—executed not by gun-wielding terrorists on planes but by hackers activating software programs from thousands of miles away—could "deny large regions of the country access to bulk-system power for weeks or even months," concluded a National Academies of Science study declassified late last year. "An event of this magnitude and duration could lead to turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helplessness that would play directly into the hands of the terrorists. If such large extended outages were to occur during times of extreme weather, they could also result in hundreds or even thousands of deaths due to heat stress or extended exposure to extreme cold."

And the cyberthreat is growing as U.S. utilities seek to modernize aging electric infrastructure. When power companies invest in updating the 20th-century power grid with 21st-century "smart-grid" technology—particularly digital tools that increase the efficiency of electricity distribution while cutting global-warming pollution—they're also making the grid more vulnerable to devastating cyberattacks.