Worried About Power-Source Cyber-Attacks? Don't Be

April 21, 2016

By Rory J. Thompson - Web Editor

With all the news of hacking and malware floating about, you might think that our nation’s power supply might be in danger. Yet while such an attack could conceivably take place with dire consequences, those in the know are worrying about bigger things.

“It’s very technically challenging to go from an electronic cyber attack to causing physical damage to equipment.” That was the consensus of Gerry W. Cauley, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., or NERC (News - Alert), the not-for-profit organization that acts as a watchdog and standards-bearer for North America’s power grid. Cauley made the remarks recently in testimony at a Congressional hearing devoted to threats to the electrical grid and potential consequences.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Cauley noted that a power outage due to a cyber attack on the electric grid “would last one to two weeks.” In most cases, outages due to cyber attacks would likely last anywhere from several hours to a few days, Cauley told lawmakers.

But he also noted that while not a big worry just yet, potential foreign attacks are cause for concern. “The December 2015 cyber attack on Ukraine’s electric grid affected four dozen substations and left 250,000 people without power,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), chairman of the subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management.

Such an attack can have far-reaching effects. On December 23, attackers entered the industrial control system remotely through hijacked connections to the computer system and opened up breakers, which took a string of substations off the grid, according to Wired’s Kim Zetter.

The more likely cause of an outage that lasts weeks or months are physical attacks such as shootings or explosive devices against transformers in substations, Cauley said.

“One such attack happened in 2013 against a Silicon Valley substation,” the Journal said. “In particular, the loss of a large transformer in an attack could pose a big problem. They need to be delivered by rail cars or barges and it can take months to get a new one.”