eBook identifies threats to utility grid modernisation efforts

Global engineering firm Black & Veatch has released a new e-book that discusses the progress being made by US utilities in modernising their grid networks and the challenges they are facing in doing so.

The Smart Utility eBook: Industry Benchmarks for Progress and Future Actions has identified two main factors hindering utilities’ grid modernisation efforts.

Cyber threats

Attempted attacks by cybercriminals continue to rise within the US utility sector and have been accelerated by the pandemic with more people working from home.

COVID-19 has increased the use of remote access which in turn has provided a perfect mechanism for hackers to penetrate and attack the power grid. As a result, hacking, ransomware, phishing, and data leaks have increased resulting in utilities pushing back on digitalisation programmes following increased use of advanced digital solutions having being identified as one of the key factors driving an increase in cyber attacks.

Although NERC has developed a new cybersecurity framework related to virtualisation and the cloud, hackers continue to increase their attacks using new methods, according to Black & Veatch.

Although utilities are investing in cybersecurity solutions, 20-45% of utility operations are not actively protected by their security programmes, states the eBook.

Global cybercrime costs are also expected to grow 15% per year over the next five years, totaling $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, increasing from $3 trillion in 2015, according to a statement.

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Severe weather and climate events

Whilst harsh weather and climate events are one of the factors driving utilities into investing in grid modernisation, energy companies’ efforts are also being reversed by the increasing numbers of wildfires and extreme temperatures.

2020 set a new annual record of more than 22 events with values greater than $1 billion, crushing the previous record
of 16 events. The events resulted in massive damages to utility transmission and distribution infrastructure that had been put in place to enable the transition to next-generation business cases, states Black & Veatch.

Whilst 87% of utility executives surveyed by Black & Veatch state that severe weather is increasing in their regions, only 24% of utilities in North America feel well prepared to deal with extreme weather.

To address this, utilities have been urged to increase investments in grid infrastructure management and resilience including hardening of poles, installation of non-wires alternatives, optimise vegetation management and pursue advanced asset monitoring tools.

Grid modernisation continues

Despite the challenges being faced by utilities, grid modernisation across the US is progressing with drivers far outweighing challenges, find surveys conducted by Black & Veatch.

Top drivers for the modernisation of grids include aggressive decarbonisation goals, shifting business models that are reliant on distributed energy resources, the need to ensure the reliability of grid networks.

More than 50% of the surveyed executives say reliability is their top driver for grid modernisation whilst 38%
say increased monitoring, control, and automation capabilities, and 31% say aging infrastructure.

Utilities continue to address challenges associated with upgrading of grid systems by focusing on reducing cybersecurity gaps as distribution grid endpoints grow, secure their place in an increasingly competitive energy market, and work to build resilience against increasingly severe climate events and aging infrastructure.

Jeff Mehlin, vice president of Black & Veatch’s private networks business, said: “Utilities are realising their traditional approaches to energy and business operations will not carry them through the inevitable transformation.

“Utilities must integrate systems, data and work processes internally to modernized and be flexible. Through integration, utilities can formulate innovative strategies to manage current-day energy generation and distribution risks.

“Although challenges persist, utilities will continue to advance the grid.

“Alongside integration, utilities need to deploy the communications, management platforms, and technologies needed to control the grid with comprehensive intelligence, predictability, security and speed — this is the grid of the future.”

The eBook is available for download.