How Microgrids Can Improve Grid Security

When more than 50 million people in the northeastern United States and parts of Canada woke up on Thursday, August 14, 2003, they probably had no idea that mere hours later a harmless little tree branch would wipe out their power for days. It didn’t help matters that a software bug would prevent the system operators from detecting the incident soon enough, thereby leading to an overload of power flowing to a defunct line. Rightfully so, this outage led to sweeping reforms to help make the grid more resilient.
Fast forward twelve years and the U.S. electrical grid still faces challenges, only this time the threat is not simply a tree branch. Rather, this time, the threat is malicious cyber actors who intend to cause mass panic, prolonged outages, or some other nefarious purpose. In fact, a report by the Technical Resource for Incident Prevention found that cyberattacks are on the rise, and “energy organizations are experiencing a disproportionately large increase when compared to other industries.” For example, Ukraine’s electrical grid was attacked in December of 2015 by cyber hackers, leaving 225,000 without power and prompting the Department of Homeland Security to warn that a similar attack could occur in the U.S. Based on this data, it’s no surprise that securing the grid has become a prominent concern, especially with regard to cyberterrorism.
When it comes to security, especially grid security, reliability is paramount and maintaining system operation is one of the most important objectives for any system operator. Having mitigated the formidable threat of tree branches through sweeping reforms, system operators and the public must now consider new ways to ensure grid resilience and security. One approach is utilizing microgrids.
Currently, the grid is configured around a few large nodes and if a cyber threat is able to disable even one of those nodes they could leave millions without electricity. To mitigate this risk, some are advocating that the country’s current grid system should be made more dispersed by supplementing the few large interconnected nodes with thousands of smaller, independent microgrids.
Unlike the current grid, a microgrid relies on its own power generation resources and distribution networks. The system can be as small as a single building, like the OATI Microgrid Technology Center, or as big as a neighborhood. Having hundreds or thousands of microgrids working together with the existing few large nodes would make destroying an entire system more difficult, as thousands of systems would have to be destroyed, versus the few that exist now.
You see, the next time a tree branch decides to take out a transmission line, or a cyber threat tries to compromise the grid, the microgrid could continue to produce energy and still provide power to end consumers. While this is convenient for casual users, it is absolutely critical for hospitals, data centers, telecoms, and other significant, “must have” services.
Building microgrids into the next generation electric grid will help ensure that everyone enjoys the increased likelihood of waking up every single day knowing that a tree branch, or cyber threat, is most likely not going to shut down a large portion of the nation’s power grid.
About the authors:
David Heim oversees OATI’s Strategic Initiatives department, which includes development of new and emerging hardware, software, and security technologies. Additionally, Mr. Heim is responsible for the development and construction of the new OATI Microgrid Technology Center and Data Center, oversight of OATI’s existing Data Center and infrastructure, and coordinating compliance with IT-related industry and regulatory standards. Mr. Heim joined OATI in 2009 in the Office of General Counsel and has served as OATI’s Chief Information Officer.

Jerrod Montoya is an innovative security expert who focuses on the intersection of the law, technology, and cybersecurity. In his role as Security and Compliance Counsel at OATI, he provides counsel on legal, policy, regulatory, and strategic matters. He also manages several internal cybersecurity related initiatives and provides project management support for new projects in OATI’s rapidly expanding Smart Grid area. He is President of the InfraGard Minnesota Members Alliance, an FBI-sponsored nonprofit that fosters critical infrastructure security through public/private collaboration, as well as an adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and William Mitchell Hamline School of Law, where he teaches courses on cybersecurity law. Mr. Montoya is also an advisor to the Cybersecurity Summit. Previously, he served as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.