By Justin Hienz
Perhaps America’s most critical infrastructure is its national electrical grid. It has served us well to this point, supporting all our grandiose and astounding technological innovations. But the grid is getting old, and it doesn’t keep up with our innovations (and electronic appetites) as well as it should. So, we’re upgrading – to a Smart Grid.
Smart Grid, you say? Smart indeed, and we need it. While the national power system ages, we continue to charge into the technological future – and this requires power – lots of it. Our increasing power needs must be delivered when and where we want it with the flip of a switch. Moreover, we need our power intake to be consistent, resilient and less vulnerable to interruptions, be they natural or human-caused.
Here’s why. When the power goes out, we lose billions with a B – specifically, even with the power system 99.97 percent reliable, power outages cost $150 billion a year. What’s worse, if the power is out, we’re less able to protect our infrastructure and population, particularly as we become more reliant on computer systems and surveillance technologies. And if even one person has to miss the Real Housewives of Orange County, by God that’s an infringement on our liberty! Whatever we want, whenever we want it. That’s capitalism to a T.
The Smart Grid will help make this possible. It decentralizes power generation, increases transmission and allows the grid to interact with “smart” appliances based on consumer desires – smart, because advanced computer systems will better distribute power based on pre-determined and perceived needs. This makes it cheaper, more efficient and less likely to go on the fritz.
The grid also incorporates alternative fuel sources, such as wind and solar energy. Ah, green. Mother Nature will be pleased. Terrorists will not be, as decentralized production and distribution makes it much harder for attacks to create any significant or lasting impact.
And so the other shoe drops: What does the Smart Grid have to do with homeland security?
I don’t claim to be an expert on the Smart Grid, but after reading much of what information is openly available, it is clear that the Grid touches on every aspect of homeland security. That’s intuitive because technology has become a central aspect of our national security. Yet, despite this, there is not the kind of widespread discussion on how to improve Smart Grid security – the kind we need if we’re going to keep the Grid safe.
We must be constantly aware that the United States without power is like a battleship without fuel. The guns might work, but for the most part, we’re dead in the water. Aviation and maritime security are important but impossible without constant, secure power – no screening technologies, no lights, no alarms. Supply chain security is essential to our continued prosperity – but once again, no power, no chain. Cyber security and electronic surveillance technology is a no-brainer, but what about waste management, clean water, heating and air conditioning, and food refrigeration? Homeland security isn’t only about a war on terror. There are many elements to our critical infrastructure that rely on a constant supply of power, and if the Smart Grid isn’t tough enough to withstand all threats, we’re in for a world of hurt.
The time to improve Smart Grid security is now, while we are developing it. The information is readily available (some would say too available, as al Qaeda and other American enemies use open-source information to do us harm). So before the doors of information close, and only those with clearance can keep up with the rapid developments, let’s focus our collective efforts on digesting the wealth of information available. Let’s make Smart Grid debates and improvements as key an element of our homeland security analysis as any other (e.g., aviation security). To be sure, there are expert voices sounding off, but in my opinion, given the importance of the Smart Grid, there are not nearly enough.
This isn’t some future plan getting dusty in the back room. It’s happening right now. Parts of the grid have already been built and are operating in California. President Obama pushed the development full-steam ahead with $4.5 billion from the 2009 economic stimulus money dedicated specifically to fast track Smart Grid technology development. Piece by piece, the Smart Grid is coming together. It deserves more expert attention. Otherwise, lights out.
Justin Hienz is a Senior Account Executive at Adfero Group, working with the firm’s Homeland Security practice. He is also assistant editor of Security Debrief.