Skip to main content

Grid Security is National Security: Cyber Threats to Energy Infrastructure and Cities

RESEARCH Working Paper by Karen Weigert
Aerial view of a city lit up at night
Nastya Dulhiier

Karen Weigert shares four ways we can respond to future cyberattacks.

In a new era of both warfare and terrorism, cyberattacks are a growing global weapon and their frequent target is energy. In the United States energy has suffered more cyberattacks than any other aspect of American critical infrastructure.

Throughout decades the building blocks of the electric system were designed to be standalone. There were no interconnected operating systems and no internet to link to. Software and management systems controlled assets like power plants and substations from the inside, in operational isolation.

Today existing assets across the system are being rapidly joined through digital pathways. At the same time, new assets ranging from small residential solar panels to new utility scale natural gas generation are being brought online. This rapid connection of old and new assets creates an “expanding attack surface” for cyberattackers.

Although electricity is national, risks will be local and often urban. In 2003 a blackout, caused in part by a tree branch, cascaded throughout the Eastern United States and parts of Canada. Over two days 50 million people lost power. The estimated impact to the United States was $10 billion in damages and 11 lives lost.

Cyberattacks can hit any part of the grid making the full system part of our national defense. This threat to national security is not yet matched with an adequate national response.

Here are four places to start:

  1. Augment cyber defense in the core grid. Cyber threats are volatile, never static. Ultimately closer alignment between threat identification and industry is critical.
  2. Strengthen protections against national threats with roots in distribution. Across the 50 states, multiple sectors will need to be engaged to manage threats.
  3. Demonstrate and scale components of resilience. Resilience benefits of operations and technology need to be demonstrated with data driven metrics and then scaled through the regulatory and management oversight of the grid.
  4. Invest in the cyber foundation of the future energy marketplace. As the energy system is becoming increasingly digital, interconnected and distributed, a collaboration platform that involves federal and state regulators, the energy industry and city leaders must be created to inform both regulation and industry best practice.
About the Author
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Global Cities
Council expert Karen Weigert
Karen Weigert is the director of the Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise and Responsibility at Loyola University. In 2011 she was appointed chief sustainability officer for the city of Chicago, working to guide the city's sustainability strategy and implementation, and bringing innovative and practical solutions throughout the work of the city.
Council expert Karen Weigert