With increased connectivity on the rise, there is no doubt the U.S. electric grid is becoming more vulnerable to cyberattack.

Fears exist where despite all the positives the increased connectivity bring to utilities’ bottom line, a cyber attack could cause widespread power outages. And the question remains: Is the grid prepared?

Along those lines, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has found the Department of Energy (DoE) has not developed plans for electric grid cybersecurity that address the key characteristics needed for a national strategy.

GAO’s report uses the example of a DoE risk assessment which had significant methodological limitations and did not fully analyze grid cybersecurity risks. One such key limitation was the assessment used a model that covered only a portion of the grid and reflected how that portion existed around 1980.

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GAO made a recommendation to DoE to develop a plan aimed at implementing the federal cybersecurity strategy for the grid and ensure the plan addresses the key characteristics of a national strategy, including a full assessment of cybersecurity risks to the grid.

DoE concurred with the recommendation and said it is working through an interagency process to develop a National Cyber Strategy Implementation Plan that will consider DoE’s Multiyear Plan for Energy Sector Cybersecurity.

The GAO report found the electric grid’s cybersecurity risks can be grouped into three areas:
1. Threat actors. Nations, criminal groups, terrorists, and others are increasingly capable of attacking the grid.
2. Vulnerabilities. The grid is becoming more vulnerable to cyberattacks. The increasing adoption of high-wattage consumer Internet of Things devices, and the use of the global positioning system to synchronize grid operations are also vulnerabilities.
3. Impacts. Although there have been no reported cybersecurity incidents in the U.S. that resulted in power outages, cyber attacks on industrial control systems have disrupted foreign electric grid operations.

The GAO report also noted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — the regulator for the interstate transmission of electricity — has approved mandatory grid cybersecurity standards. However, it has not ensured those standards fully address leading federal guidance for critical infrastructure cybersecurity, specifically, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework.

Potential ways an attacker could compromise industrial control system devices.
Source: GAO

In addition, FERC’s approved threshold for which entities must comply with the requirements in the full set of grid cybersecurity standards is based on an analysis that did not evaluate the potential risk of a coordinated cyberattack on geographically distributed targets. Such an attack could target, for example, a combination of geographically dispersed systems that each fall below the threshold for complying with the full set of standards. Responding to such an attack could be more difficult than to a localized event since resources may be geographically distributed rather than concentrated in the same area. Without information on the risk of such an attack, FERC does not have assurance that its approved threshold for mandatory compliance adequately responds to that risk.

GAO recommended FERC consider adopting changes to its approved cybersecurity standards to more fully address the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. In addition, FERC should evaluate the potential risk of a coordinated cyberattack on geographically distributed targets and, based on the results of that evaluation, determine if changes are needed in the threshold for mandatory compliance with requirements in the full set of cybersecurity standards.

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