April 16, 2015

Texas electric grid vulnerable to cyber attack

Surveillance video of a California substation being attacked in 2013 is considered a wake-up call.

Snipers knocked out 17 transformers. The Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Texas faced a cyber-attack in 2011. Now a new report from USA Today says our electric grid is attacked every four days either physically or through cyber threats.

But a security expert and former Austin Homeland Security Official says the numbers are higher than that and the attacks are getting faster and more sophisticated.

He says malicious code may be only a few strategic keystrokes away from compromising our electric grid.

The National Geographic Channel dramatized one chaotic scenario in the movie American Blackout. The fear is a cascading blackout that lasts for weeks or months.

"That is a realistic thing the industry is worried about," Humphreys said.

Chris Humphreys is the CEO of The Anfield Group in Austin focusing on network and computer security. He consults and helps energy providers fight off cyber threats.  Humphreys says electric grids face some sort of attack almost every day.

"Our grid is extremely vulnerable," Humphreys said.  "It's also extremely advanced and interdependent upon its self.  It's hugely interconnected."

He says a critical failure would be like a domino effect.

"A cyber-attack at a key point of that inter-connect could have a huge impact very, very quickly," Humphreys said.

He says Texas would be a prime target especially in the summer.

"We have huge, huge demands on our grid to keep people cool," Humphreys said.  "Imagine if we did not have that for three for five days at a time at triple degree heat."

It's a threat Texas doesn't take lightly.

"I think any electric grid has the potential of being a target," said Robbie Searcy with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas better known as ERCOT.

ERCOT would not reveal how many threats they face on a daily basis but they did say it's a top concern.

"We have a team of professionals who have a series of procedures they take to help protect our systems from these sorts of attacks," Searcy said.

Texas has a separate grid from the rest of the country with few direct ties that could disable our system from a cascading blackout from say California or Denver.

"ERCOT has never had a cascading, uncontrolled cascading blackout situation," Searcy said.

But, Humphreys says it's a constant battle that is not going away.

"We're having a hard time keeping up with how fast this stuff propagates and our ability to react to that is way off," Humphreys said.