Smart grids are not clean energy themselves, but they will play a significant role in how we manage changes to renewable energy – oddly enough, smart grids are also the stuff of conspiracy theories and ominous predictions of cyber attacks and full blackouts.
“Unless we wake up and realize what we're doing, there is 100% certainty of total catastrophic failure of the entire power infrastructure within 3 years,” is the extremely bleak prediction offered by well-known cyber security expert David Chalk in an online interview that is making its rounds and prompting smart grid advocates to cry foul play.
But before we get into the conspiracy and counter-conspiracy theories that have been given a popular boost by Chalk’s gloom-and-doom statement, let’s talk about what smart grids do, exactly, and how they fit into the clean energy modus operandi.
A smart electricity grid uses technology to monitor and respond to changes in energy supply and demand to allow for increased reliability and efficiency; and as such, indirectly contributes to reductions in CO2 emissions and energy costs. Because of the technology they rely upon, smart grids are also vulnerable to cyber attacks. This vulnerability, however, has not hindered global investment. Global spending on smart grid networks is expected to increase by 17.4 percent between 2010 and 2015, with overall spending by 2015 forecasted at over $46 billion.
It is the vulnerability of the smart grid that has the cautious and the outright critical demanding that we take a step back and re-evaluate the technology and the increasingly rapid pace of smart grid installation.
In an interview for an upcoming documentary film entitled 'Take Back Your Power', Chalk says: "We're in a state of crisis. The front door is open and there is no lock to be had. There is not a power meter or device on the grid that is protected from hacking – if not already infected – with some kind of Trojan horse that can cause the grid to be shut down or completely annihilated."
Chalk is not the only high-profile figure to come out against the smart grids, saying that vulnerabilities have not been addressed yet installation is proceeding without caution. Canada’s BC Hydro utility had its security manager, Doug Powell, join the chorus of naysayers, stating that “Every endpoint [meter] is a new potential threat vector.”
Furthermore, former CIA director James Woolsey told EnergyNow.com that hacking vulnerabilities render the smart grid a “really, really stupid grid.”
Likewise, US Inspector General Gregory Friedman has cautioned that “without a formal risk assessment and associated mitigation strategy, threats and weaknesses may go unidentified and expose the […] systems to an unacceptable level of risk.”
For the conspiracy-minded consumer, the smart grid coincides with CIA confirmation that the intelligence community is planning to use wireless smart appliances to spy on US citizens through remotely controlled technologies.
The smart grid initiative has been a public relations nightmare that should have been handled better. Not only are potential vulnerabilities to cyber attack and prognoses of “100% blackouts” riling citizens groups across Europe and North America, but higher costs and health risks perceived to be associated with smart meters are also prompting legal action by consumer groups.
Writing for Oilprice.com in January, Gary Hunt discusses the disillusionment over the smart grid, which was “seductive, promising reduced line losses, more efficient integration of renewable energy, happiness, prosperity for all”. According to Hunt, that smart meters are causing price spikes is untrue, while medical experts have not been able to associate any health concerns with the use of smart meters. But the truth, he says, is of little importance in the face of public perception.
“There is a lot of quiet work going on behind the scenes” to improve the smart grid, Hunt writes. “Some of the best opportunities will be in distribution automation that uses sensors and advanced predictive analytics to improve grid reliability, quickly identify outages, isolate the affected area before it craters the rest of the grid, and reroute load to keep the lights on or more quickly turn them back on.”
There is “real potential in the smart grid,” Hunt says, but “getting out of the trough of disillusionment requires escaping from the grip of politicians and regulators […] to focus on improving the customer’s bottom line rather than the politicians’ bragging rights”.
Certainly, the public relations fiasco has lent a great deal of fodder to conspiracy theories, as well as counter-conspiracy theories. Writing in Smartgridnews.com, Jesse Berst suggests that smart grid conspiracy theorists brought Chalk on board to scare the public.
By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com
Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.