The U.S. power grid is a crucial part of our daily lives. Any successful attack on it could not only plunge parts of the country into darkness, but it would also compromise America’s ability to defend itself. A strike like this would damage our economy and pose risks to human health and safety and national security. That’s why, this past week, President Trump signed an executive order to identify actions required to protect our power grid from attacks. The order — called the “Securing the United States Bulk-Power System” — directs the Department of Energy to take steps to defend the U.S. bulk-power system against attacks – cyber and otherwise.
The Federal government operates around 20% of the U.S. bulk-power system. The Department of Energy, Power Marketing Administrations, and other federal institutions spend millions of dollars every year, procuring control centers, large generators, and other elements to equip the system. Under the current rules, companies with the lowest bids more often than not win government contracts, which unfortunately makes it easy for companies with malicious intent to provide components for the grid. These components may be either (intentionally) poorly designed hardware that fails prematurely or software that is anything but hack-proof.
The new mandate will prohibit federal agencies from procuring products for the bulk power system from vendors deemed to be subject to influence from foreign adversaries. The Secretary of Energy would have the new responsibility of identifying weaknesses in our existing system as well as creating a list of “pre-qualified” safe vendors. The order will also establish a task force to protect the power grid from interference.
This task force will include the Secretaries of Commerce, Defense, and Homeland Security, as well as the Director of National Intelligence.
While the order does not mention specific countries deemed as unsafe, a 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment issued by then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that known cyber adversaries, like China and Russia, were using cyber techniques to spy on U.S. infrastructure.
“It is imperative the bulk-power system be secured against exploitation and attacks by foreign threats,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in a news release.
Protecting the integrity of the Bulk Electric System as well as the distribution system gets to the heart of providing reliable and thus affordable electric power to all Americans. Any attack on this crucial economic backbone could be catastrophic in so many ways. It’s for that reason we take measures to protect it. Hopefully, the President’s new executive order is a step in the right direction to keeping the lights on and keeping Americans safe. We’ll be watching closely to see how the order Securing the United States Bulk-Power System pans out.