|In OurEnergyPolicy’s May 6, 2020, Energy Leaders Series webinar, General Wesley K. Clark—former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Founder of Renew America Together—spoke on vulnerabilities in our energy infrastructure and how to address critical threats. Gen. Clark gave his analysis, insights, and recommendations in conversation with Mark F. Sundback (Partner, Sheppard Mullin).
Gen. Clark said it became clear in about 2008 that cyberattacks and threats to the grid can not only jeopardize digital information, but can also control and damage material assets and physical structures. For example, in 2015, bad actors used software to shut down Ukraine’s electricity system. The grid could also be damaged through an electromagnetic pulse (EMP)—a short burst of electromagnetic energy that can damage electronic equipment. Gen. Clark explained that an EMP “could literally turn off the grid for most of the country,” which would affect lighting, refrigeration, our ability to communicate, transportation of goods, airplane take-offs, and gas filling stations. “Compared to COVID, EMP is 1,000 times worse,” Gen. Clark said. “It would be a complete catastrophe.”
Gen. Clark stated that we have done very little to address EMP threats because the solutions are complicated, incredibly expensive, and an “infinite financial sink” for utilities. He said we would need to be able to take the U.S. electric grid and separate it into 20-30 different sections connected by the right type of cutoffs so that a power surge would not be able to move through the entire grid. We would need protection for our most sensitive assets, double surge protection devices, and the ability to isolate portions of the grid. Security is usually a cost element and not a business promoter, and Gen. Clark said we would need to find a way for utilities to profit from addressing the EMP threat in order to incentivize security updates. This is also the case for microgrids, which are good for security but not in the best interest of utilities. “We’re constantly fighting a battle of efficiency and security” when it comes to the electric grid, Gen. Clark said.
Gen. Clark mentioned that in the last two years, standards have been published for levels of protection from EMPs. He said the further we can go to protect the United States from an EMP and other cybersecurity threats, the greater our ability will be to deal with a crisis. He stated that a lesson we have learned from COVID-19 is that bad scenarios can happen. He also spoke on other significant cybersecurity concerns, such as rising tensions from China and Russia competing with the United States.