The Most Critical Security Challenges of the Energy and Utility Industry
The energy and utility infrastructure constitute the fundamental infrastructure of modern society. Any attempt to disrupt power supplies could have devastating effects on our lives and national security. A structured approach that involves devising robust strategies by understanding the most significant risks can make the industry more secure and resilient.
What makes the energy and utility sector so vulnerable?
The following factors make the energy and utility sector highly vulnerable to natural and human-caused disasters:
- Their ever-increasing attack surface resulting from their organizational and geographic complexity.
- Criminals looking to cause security and economic dislocation.
- The interdependency between physical and cyber infrastructure.
Increased risks of cyber attacks
In this age of digitalization, a significant risk hounding the industry is cyber and state-sponsored crime. Stuxnet virus, which affected Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant in 2009, was the first targeted, weaponized cyber-attack against a power generation system. Prior to this incident, it was widely believed that industrial systems would never be the target of hackers. The reason we are discussing Stuxnet today is that the control units at that time were not attached to outside systems like the internet, but modern industry systems are widely internet enabled. This has made targeting industrial control systems a lot more easier. The industrial systems can be attacked for different purposes, including:
- For controlling plants in a way that it cannot be used for their intended purpose.
- Causing the plant to damage itself.
- To steal services.
- To gain access to the activities of legitimate users.
Physical terrorist attacks
Possible physical terrorist attacks include targeting transformers, substations, transmission towers, power plants, control centers, or fuel delivery systems. Between 1987 to 1996, more than 20,000 physical attacks occurred on power lines, transformers, substations, and central power stations, causing service disruptions. The potential for such attacks has pushed the topic of reliability from being an industry responsibility to the federal policy arena.
Threats arising from extreme weather
Natural disasters are increasingly affecting the energy and utility companies around the world. As extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, become more commonplace due to global warming and climate change, energy and utility companies must be well prepared to cope with the physical and financial impacts.
Of all the risks, water stress ranks the highest for utilities. Wildfires, hurricanes, and floods cause energy companies to shut down their operations and create difficulties in installing and maintaining energy and power infrastructure. The first half of 2021 brought severe flooding, winter storms, and intense heat waves, causing losses of an estimated $40 billion. The energy and utility sector needs to move climate resiliency up the agenda and think of feasible solutions to alleviate the damages.
Protecting the energy and utility sector is key to a thriving economy. The security challenges highlighted in the article will require the best technology solutions and the industry to rise to the occasion and collaboratively find solutions to ensure the safety and security of the market.