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Developing a More Secure Smart Grid for the Nation

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Last June, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $3.9 billion in Recovery Act funding targeted toward smart-grid technologies and investment in electric transmission infrastructure. As private companies begin the task of implementing a national smart grid, questions about security and vulnerabilities have emerged. Some analysts have even questioned whether a national smart grid will be more vulnerable to hacking than the current utility grid.

There is reason for concern. The vast quantity of data generated by grids has increased the vulnerability to security breaches, and the problem is dramatically greater than just a potential set of individually hacked smart meters.

For example, evidence emerged last April that hackers from Russia and China had penetrated our electrical systems. While no specific outages were reported, the incident elevated concerns of a potential cyber-assault on America's electric infrastructure. A successful attack could render our intelligence services blind if critical systems are brought down. The challenge now facing smart-grid proponents is how to protect a system that has a conceptual, planned reliance on integrated broadband communications and remote-control techniques.

There is one promising solution. Microgrids offer the technology that could enable the secure growth of discreet elements of the smart grid. Also known as distributed generation, microgrids produce energy closer to the user rather than transmitting it from remote power plants. Power is generated and stored locally, and works in conjunction with the main grid, providing power as needed.

Many experts believe that microgrids offer the redundancy of systems that can protect our macrogrid from cyber attacks. Our current reliance on centralized energy generation provides one central point of attack -- and leaves the entire system vulnerable if it goes down. Alternatively, a grid supplemented with microgrids can isolate systems under attack, and is less likely to be completely disabled, which would allow our transmission system to recover faster from cyber-attacks, natural disasters, or cascading blackouts like the one that took out the Eastern Seaboard in 2003.

The interface technology now available between the microgrid and the macrogrid utilizes power-converter technology that does not permit outside signals to cause a main shut-off. It will be immune even if there are communication links that theoretically could lead to a communication intrusion or failure.

Implications for critical infrastructure protection throughout the United States are enormous. For example, a single microgrid in New Orleans could provide secure and reliable power for multiple critical hospitals, medical institutions and bio-medical research facilities, even during traumatic weather events like Hurricane Katrina.

One segment of the federal government ripe for microgrid development is our military bases. With their high energy usage (military installations consumed an estimated 3.8 billion kWh of electricity last year, enough to power 350,000 households in the U.S.) and the importance of operating seamlessly through power outages for national security reasons, military bases are a prime candidate for introducing microgrids into our national infrastructure.

That's why I introduced H.R. 5230, the Military Energy Security Act (MESA), which would establish an energy security pilot program to develop partnerships between military bases and national laboratories to develop secure microgrid systems. Supporting the science and technology for microgrids will put our nation on the fast track to energy independence. Microgrids provide a more secure infrastructure for our military, both here and abroad, and are a key component to the success of our nation's clean energy strategy.

Microgrids can accelerate development and implementation of renewable energy technologies, from solar to wind to biomass, providing local generation that negates the need to retrofit national transmission lines. One of the greatest challenges of implementing a national smart grid solution is the cost and time associated with retrofitting aging power plants, transmission lines, homes and offices with the appropriate technology. Microgrids offer an incremental approach that can bring the benefits of smart grid technology and introduce more renewable energy to those who need them in a timely, efficient and cost-effective manner.

Microgrids can make our electrical infrastructure far more resilient to both natural disasters and hostile attacks. As we develop plans to modernize our electrical transmission infrastructure, microgrids should be a key tool in improving our grid's strength and flexibility.

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