With electricity expected to account for a large share of the world’s energy use by 2050, the stakes are high.
Forty-eight years ago, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) unsheathed an energy weapon in the form of an oil embargo, causing shortages in the U.S. and elsewhere that affected global politics and economies long afterward.
Now, as the world increasingly moves to electricity to power everything from communications to transportation to industry, it could be that denial of electricity service becomes the next energy weapon.
We’ve already had a glimpse of what modern geopolitical conflict in an increasingly electrified world might look like. In late 2015, hackers breached the information systems of a Ukrainian electricity distribution company and remotely switched off 30 substations, leaving several hundred thousand people without power for several hours. The incident grabbed headlines only briefly but was touted as the first known cyber hack against electricity assets. Following a similar attack in Kyiv in 2016, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of waging a cyberwar against Ukraine.
With more than half of world energy use expected to come from electricity by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, denial of electricity service has the potential to be a potent weapon. Smart devices and the Internet of Things—which refers to physical objects embedded with sensors and software that can exchange data with each other and other systems over the internet, often to take autonomous actions—expand the surface area for hackers to attack. A particularly worrisome area are supervisory control and data acquisition software systems, known as Scada systems, that are increasingly being used to remotely monitor and control industrial infrastructure, including electrical networks. A hack into such systems could be extremely dangerous.
As the ransomware attack on the pivotal Colonial Pipeline that transports refined products along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard highlighted earlier this month, nations will have to focus more intently on how to keep cyber intruders out of their energy infrastructure. One way will be to beef up investment in technologies and expertise to reduce vulnerability to attack. But a key danger is that without diplomatic effort at a detente regarding the use of cyber tools against civilian populations, countries could engage in a sort of hacking arms race, betting that the ability to retaliate in kind might thwart a denial-of-electricity attack from happening in the first place.
In the 1970s, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested an alliance of U.S. allies develop a large strategic oil stockpile to prevent the use of denial of oil shipments as a geopolitical lever. The effort was successful in curbing petro-power. Countries may have to rethink how to mimic that effect in a world of electrification. In the case of the U.S., one option might be for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to store equipment to build micro- and mini-grids of solar and battery storage, enabling them to respond quickly to provide backup services for critical infrastructure in the event of an attack. Tesla was able to do something like that in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria when it installed equipment to restore power for a critical hospital facility on the island. Another option would be to mothball retired fossil-fuel generation in a way that would allow it to be brought back online as reserve power in the event of a hack on operating generation.
Silicon Valley increasingly is looking to build close-looped renewable-energy systems that can be cordoned off from the electricity grid in times of disruption, to ensure services that power its energy-hungry data centers don’t get cut off. That might become a new standard for certain kinds of businesses. Already, some grocers in climate sensitive regions such as Houston are following suit.
Like the oil weapon, the electricity weapon will work only if governments and companies are unprepared. As we move to the digital age, having the ability to protect your power (pun intended) will be the new currency of state supremacy.