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Idaho Can Help

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho)

Imagine if homes across Idaho lost power and heat without warning. That happened recently in North Carolina when criminals attacked a pair of electrical substations, cutting off power to tens of thousands of people for nearly a week. That event rightfully garnered national attention and scrutiny, but what may have escaped notice is that several similar grid attacks recently played out much closer to home.

In November, trespassers in Oregon cut a fence and fired rifles at a substation that is part of the same system as Idaho utilities. Thankfully, safeguards prevented these intruders from having the same devastating effect as in North Carolina. Another attack occurred in Tacoma, Washington when criminals attacked grid equipment and shut off power to 14,000 people on Christmas Day.

Idahoans thankfully did not lose power in any of these attacks, but we cannot be complacent. Attacks like these – both physical and cyber – are rising across the country.

While these events were shocking to many, those tasked with hardening the grid, like the experts at the Idaho National Lab (INL), were unsurprised. America’s power grid — with thousands of large assets, millions of miles of distribution lines, and the reliance of virtually all Americans — is a prime target for enemies at home and abroad.

We know our grid is vulnerable to devastating attacks. Sitting on our hands and doing nothing proactive to protect it is not an option.

Thankfully, we in Idaho are leading the way. For a start, I worked with Senator Angus King (I-Maine) to introduce the Securing Energy Infrastructure Act to protect the grid, which became law in 2019 and is helping to develop improved grid protection technologies. At the same time, the INL has been at the vanguard in energy grid innovation and security.  

Following a 2013 substation attack, INL developed a unique system to protect essential equipment at substations nationwide. This system can withstand large-caliber firearms, small explosive devices, and even category two hurricanes. This technology has vast potential to protect our infrastructure, and we must start implementing advancements like this now, not in the aftermath of another attack.

In addition to hardening our physical defenses, our energy systems’ cybersecurity requires equal attention. In 2021, a cyberattack on the 5,500-mile Colonial Pipeline caused a temporary outage affecting millions who rely on gasoline, diesel, home heating oil, and jet fuel. The impact of a hack like that has the potential to cause even more devastation than a physical assault. Worse yet, cyberattacks can be carried out from a virtually limitless range. 

The INL and other labs are working to fend off these far away attacks by developing and implementing protective technologies like the Constrained Cyber Communication Device (C3D), which reviews, filters, alerts, and blocks abnormal commands sent to relay devices. Similarly, the INL’s CpDefender monitors for potential threats, blocks access, and alerts human operators when it detects a network intrusion. The INL is also enhancing grid stability by working with industry partners to improve everything from energy storage to diversifying energy distribution.

There’s no doubt that attacks on our energy infrastructure are deeply concerning. Thankfully, solutions are being developed here in the Gem State to protect our entire nation from domestic and international threats. With the leadership of Idahoans at the INL, we can continue to make our power grid and energy systems resilient to protect every Idahoan and every American.

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