European power grids have long been considered as potential targets for major cyberattacks given the enormous damage they could inflict. Successful cyberattacks against power grids could not only cause societal and economic disruptions, but also put a dent in the military readiness of European countries. In the event of a blackout, the lights could go out in town halls and military facilities alike. Lukas Trakimavičius explains how micro grids can ensure the stable operation of military assets.
In recent years most European power providers have embraced large scale digitization. Companies increasingly began to rely on sophisticated industrial control systems, which allowed to cut operational costs and boost efficiency. A great deal of this new hardware was also connected to the Industrial Internet of Things, which made the equipment “smarter” and even more performance-oriented.
IoT and digitization makes us vulnerable
Unfortunately, much of this equipment was built not necessarily with security in mind. Volumes of evidence suggest that the hardware often lacks adequate security protocols, runs on outdated software and frequently suffers from poor network security configurations. Today, a targeted search engine such as Shodan can uncover thousands of publicly accessible logins to equipment that is connected to the internet.
A number of serious cyberattacks against power grids have already highlighted the gravity of these security vulnerabilities.
In 2015, a hacker group attacked the industrial control systems of an electrical grid in Ukraine, which left around 225,000 residents in the dark for up to six hours. A year later, another cyberattack successfully compromised the Ukrainian power grid, took control of some of its industrial control systems, and cut a fifth of Kyiv’s power for about an hour. While both of these cyberattacks caused only temporary supply disruptions, it took months for the control stations to fully recover.
Another cyberattack successfully compromised the Ukrainian power grid, took control of some of its industrial control systems, and cut a fifth of Kyiv’s power for about an hour
Although much ink has been spilled discussing the societal and economic risks of cyberattacks, arguably too little attention has been paid to the military’s acute dependency on an intermittent supply of electricity. There is considerable concern that a sufficiently powerful cyberattack against a central power grid of a European country could disrupt the operational capacity of its military facilities, bases and other strategic assets.
The military depends on the same grids as everyone else
The key problem is that in Europe a significant number of military facilities are overly reliant on the same commercial power grids for their energy supplies as everyone else. This means that if the central power grids would go down, some military facilities could potentially go down too.
Granted, this does not mean that power grid infrastructure is teetering on the brink of an imminent hacker-induced meltdown. Most grid operators run highly advanced cyber security protocols and often have sufficient redundancy to withstand component failure.
Yet despite these security measures, power grid architecture remains inherently fragile. The risk still exists that a series of powerful cyberattacks could slip through the security net, infect the operator and cause damage to the grid.
Also, virtually all military sites have rigorous emergency power generation plans, which usually involve back-up diesel generators. However, many military facilities only have enough fuel to last a couple of days, meaning that if there is a prolonged power outage, soldiers would be forced to find additional fuel to sustain their operational capacity.
The catch, however, is that it is notoriously difficult to secure a constant fuel supply if there is no power. To see what it’s like to operate without electricity for an extended period of time, one needs to look no further than Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the 2017 Hurricane Maria. (Hint: the situation was very grim).
Micro grids to the rescue
Fortunately, partial decentralization of power grids through the introduction of micro grids could potentially help strengthen energy resilience. Micro grids are basically scaled-down versions of regular power grids that in combination with distributed energy generation units are frequently used to provide electricity to remote areas. In addition to working independently from the main power grids, micro grids can also operate in parallel with them.
Given their capacity to operate independently from the main power grid, micro grids can help ensure a continuous supply of electricity even in the event of a crippling cyberattack. If the hackers manage to take down the main grid, the micro grid can disconnect itself from the main grid and, by relying on either local or on-site energy sources such as solar or wind power, it could continue to work relatively unharmed.
Therefore, if a military facility would be connected to a micro grid, it is much more likely that it could successfully weather a cyberattack (or any other disruption for that matter) without having its operational capacity impaired.
Although the introduction of micro grids in European military facilities is no magic bullet – as micro grids themselves are vulnerable to cyberattacks – decentralized systems are still far more resilient than centralized ones because it is much more difficult to simultaneously compromise tens or hundreds of micro grids than a single centralized grid.
In addition to enhancing energy supply security, micro grids can also provide other, less obvious benefits. Most modern micro grids have “smart” control and energy management systems, which allow them to analyse and optimize resources in real-time and use predictive analytics for maximum efficiency. These “smart” features can allow a military facility to optimize its energy use even while it is connected to a central power grid and could lead to decreased energy waste and a lower power bill.
As the threat of cyberattacks against European power grids grows by the day, it is key to ensure that the lights in military facilities would stay on, even in the event of a prolonged blackout. Fortunately, micro grids could help address this problem by providing not only an intermittent supply of power, but also by boosting energy efficiency and helping to cut costs. This is a pretty grand thing to do for something whose name starts with micro.
Lukas Trakimavičius works at the Economic Security Policy Division of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously, he held several positions at NATO, where he worked on energy security, arms control and non-proliferation. The content of this article reflects the author’s personal views.