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Understanding Risk: Cyber security for the modern grid



There’s an evolution taking place in the utilities industry to build a modern distribution automation grid.

As the demand for digitised, connected and integrated operations increases across all industries, the challenge for utilities is to provide reliable energy delivery with a focus on efficiency and sustainable sources.

The pressing need to improve the up-time of critical power distribution infrastructure is forcing change. However, as power networks merge and become ‘smarter’, the benefits of improved connectivity also bring greater cyber security risks, threatening to impact progress.

Grid complexity in a new world of energy

Electrical distribution systems across Europe were originally built for centralised generation and passive loads – not for handling evolving levels of energy consumption or complexity. Yet, we are entering a new world of energy. One with more decentralised generation, intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind, a two-way flow of decarbonised energy, as well as an increasing engagement from demand-side consumers.

The grid is now moving to a more decentralised model, disrupting traditional power delivery and creating more opportunities for consumers and businesses to contribute back into the grid with renewables and other energy sources. As a result, the coming decades will see a new kind of energy consumer – that manages energy production and usage to drive cost, reliability, and sustainability tailored to their specific needs.

The rise of distributed energy is increasing grid complexity. It is evolving the industry from a traditional value chain to a more collaborative environment. One where customers dynamically interface with the distribution grid and energy suppliers, as well as the wider energy market. Technology and business models will need to evolve for the power industry to survive and thrive.

The new grid will be considerably more digitised, more flexible and dynamic. It will be increasingly connected, with greater requirements for performance in a world where electricity makes up a higher share of the overall energy mix. There will be new actors involved in the power ecosystem such as transmission system operators (TSOs), distribution system operators (DSOs), distributed generation operators, aggregators and prosumers.

Regulation and compliancy

Cyber security deployment focuses on meeting standards and regulation compliancy. This approach benefits the industry by increasing awareness of the risks and challenges associated with a cyberattack. As the electrical grid evolves in complexity, with the additions of distributed energy resource integration and feeder automation, a new approach is required – one that is oriented towards risk management.

Currently, utility stakeholders are applying cyber security processes learned from their IT peers, which is putting them at risk. Within the substation environment, proprietary devices once dedicated to specialised applications are now vulnerable. Sensitive information available online that describes how these devices work, can be accessed by anyone, including those with malicious intent.

With the right skills, malicious actors can hack a utility and damage systems that control the grid. In doing so, they also risk the economy and security of a country or region served by that grid.

Regulators have anticipated the need for a structured cyber security approach. In the U.S. the North American Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC CIP) requirements set out what is needed to secure North America’s electric system. The European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection (EPCIP) does much the same in Europe. We face new and complex attacks every day, some of which are organised by state actors, which is leading to a reconsideration of these and the overall security approach for the industry.

Developing competencies and cross-functional teams for IT-OT integration

Due to the shift towards open communication platforms, such as Ethernet and IP, systems that manage critical infrastructure have become increasingly vulnerable. As operators of critical utility infrastructure investigate how to secure their systems, they often look to more mature cyber security practices. However, the IT approach to cyber security is not always appropriate with the operational constraints utilities are facing.

These differences in approach mean that cyber security solutions and expertise geared toward the IT world are often inappropriate for operational technology (OT) applications. Sophisticated attacks today are able to leverage cooperating services, like IT and telecommunications. As utilities experience the convergence of IT and OT, it becomes necessary to develop cross-functional teams to address the unique challenges of securing technology that spans both worlds.

Protecting against cyber threats now requires greater cross-domain activity where engineers, IT managers and security managers are required to share their expertise to identify the potential issues and attacks affecting their systems.

Cyber security for the modern grid (2)

A continuous process: assess, design, implement and manage

Cyber security experts agree that standards by themselves will not bring the appropriate security level. It’s not a matter of having ‘achieved’ a cyber secure state. Adequate protection from cyber threats requires a comprehensive set of measures, processes, technical means and an adapted organisation.

It is important for utilities to think about how organisational cyber security strategies will evolve over time. This is about staying current with known threats in a planned and iterative manner. Ensuring a strong defence against cyberattacks is a continuous process and requires an ongoing effort and a recurring annual investment. Cyber security is about people, processes and technology. Utilities need to deploy a complete programme consisting of proper organisation, processes and procedures to take full advantage of cyber security protection technologies.

To establish and maintain cyber secure systems, utilities can follow a four-point approach:

  • Conduct a risk assessment

The first step involves conducting a comprehensive risk assessment based on internal and external threats. By doing so, OT specialists and other utility stakeholders can understand where the largest vulnerabilities lie, as well as document the creation of security policy and risk migration.

  • Design a security policy and processes

A utility’s cyber security policy provides a formal set of rules to be followed. These should be led by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commision (IEC)’s family of standards (ISO27k) providing best practice recommendations on information security management.

The purpose of a utility’s policy is to inform employees, contractors, and other authorised users of their obligations regarding protection of technology and information assets. It describes the list of assets that must be protected, identifies threats to those assets, describes authorised users’ responsibilities and associated access privileges, and describes unauthorised actions and resulting accountability for the violation of the security policy.

Well-designed security processes are also important. As system security baselines change to address emerging vulnerabilities, cyber security system processes must be reviewed and updated regularly to follow this evolution. One key to maintaining and effective security baseline is to conduct a review once or twice a year.

  • Execute projects that implement the risk mitigation plan

Select cyber security technology that is based on international standards, to ensure appropriate security policy and proposed risk mitigation actions can be followed. A ‘secure by design’ approach that is based on international standards like IEC 62351 and IEEE 1686 can help further reduce risk when securing system components.

  • Manage the security programme

Effectively managing cyber security programmes requires not only taking into account the previous three points, but also the management of information and communication asset lifecycles. To do that, it’s important to maintain accurate and living documentation about asset firmware, operating systems and configurations.

It also requires a comprehensive understanding of technology upgrade and obsolescence schedules, in conjunction with full awareness of known vulnerabilities and existing patches. Cyber security management also requires that certain events trigger assessments, such as certain points in asset life cycles or detected threats

For utilities, security is everyone’s business. Politicians and the public are more and more aware that national security depends on local utilities being robust too. Mitigating risk and anticipating attack vulnerabilities on utility grids and systems is not just about installing technology. Utilities must also implement organisational processes to meet the challenges of a decentralised grid. This means regular assessment and continuous improvement of their cyber security and physical security process to safeguard our new world of energy.

By Didier Giarratano, Cyber Security Platform Director at Schneider Electric

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