Millions of American citizens rely on the power grid for every aspect of their lives, making it a critically vital system that cannot afford to be disrupted. But as the materials shortage continues to hamstring the energy sector, more public utility companies face the threat of potential shutdowns that could leave millions with electricity.

COMMENTARY

We’ve already seen the devastating impact disruptions to public utilities and the power grid can have on the economy and people’s lives. Utilities, particularly smaller, more vulnerable electric providers, must take advantage of every available tool to avoid another major outage. As winter takes hold and supply chain issues leave utilities more unprepared, fears of another power grid failure like Texas in 2021—which left 20 million without power—are rising. Indeed, New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission recently warned residents citizens that supply chain issues may incapacitate the state’s energy companies.

The materials shortage is leading many providers of critical infrastructure to brace for debilitating impacts on the industry, and consumers. From the scarcity of semiconductor chips and solar panels or the impact of Omicron, public utilities fear they may lack vital tools needed to keep or restore power if disaster strikes. As the global supply chain disruption rages on and companies continue to deal with the ripple effects of the labor shortage, one thing remains clear—utilities must upgrade to protect the grid.

To prepare themselves and the grid for demand spikes and power surges, public utility companies must have cohesive, modern, and technologically advanced solutions in place. It is nearly impossible to protect critical energy infrastructure with antiquated software and protocols. No utility company wake up to headlines blaming them for another Texas-like event that stalls operations and leaves countless customers without power.

A simple but vital action public utilities can take to reduce the effects of supply chain bottlenecks is to better protect against other risks to the grid. For instance, an automated critical infrastructure protection and energy management platform can help eliminate significant threats like cyberattacks. These attacks are more likely to happen during persistent supply chain disruptions because public utilities lack critical tools and parts needed to respond to malware attacks. Supply chain disruptions leave utilities without the materials needed to fully function around the clock, forcing companies to halt certain operations or move forward with a smaller team. The result? A small staff attempting to provide essential services with minimal equipment – leaving fewer staff and resources to focus on cybersecurity.

While many utilities and enterprises approach Supply Chain protection from a compliance perspective and labor over questionaries and paperwork with vendors and external supply channels, the cyber threat gap looms around the data and communications between the supply chain vendors and the enterprise, that these supply chain compliance documents do not protect.

Furthermore, simply adding technology such as neither a firewall or malware protection software will be able to prevent against a supply chain vector attack. Examples include a recurrence of Microsoft exchange server hacks through supply chain vendors such as SolarWinds. Microsoft has previously on other hacks confirmed that customers were hacked when the perpetrators used malware to gain “backdoor” access to more multiple agencies’ networks. Microsoft confirmed that its own supply chain was part of the hack, most likely via trusted third-party suppliers that were also hacked, opening another door to massive data thefts.

Public utilities benefit from adoption of a more holistic, cyber-secure solution that helps them develop reliable, effective cybersecurity programs while remaining fully compliant with federal regulations. Additionally, this type of solution offers a streamlined way to manage cybersecurity monitoring and compliance requirements. There are multiple ways a next-gen cybersecurity platform can provide grid operators with a game-changing approach to identifying and protecting critical assets.

An effective next-gen cybersecurity platform gives utilities a game-changing approach to identifying and protecting critical assets by providing:

  • Real-Time Cyber Data Collection
  • Cybersecurity Threat Monitoring
  • Irreproachable Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Management
  • Audit Readiness for Utilities

An artificial intelligence (AI)-fueled automation analytics and reporting platform is built for rapid deployment, making it more efficient and easier to implement into an organization’s already existing operations. Additionally, unified end-to-end security and compliance management ensures consistent CIP management while providing more efficient and accessible records, greater access to critical information, and reduced data errors, missed assignments, or due dates.

Many companies have been able to overcome challenges by leveraging an automated compliance management solution. For example, one Midwest power cooperative operating more than 3,340 miles of BES transmission line and 250 substations across two states was struggling to meet North American Electric Reliability Commission (NERC) regulations and compliance tasks. They were managing time-consuming activities like audits, data requests, self-certifications, alerts, and self-identified investigations manually, decreasing efficiency and increasing errors. Finally, the Co-Op determined it needed to significantly modernize their operations and invested in a comprehensive NERC compliance software platform. After a swift implementation phase, they experienced the following results:

  • Centralized document repository with strong controls and oversight
  • Streamlined collection of evidentiary information and automated the Reliability Standards Audit Worksheets (RSAW) generation process
  • Automated internal controls and overall compliance programs, connecting the dots between disparate tasks and workflows
  • Fully auditable, high-quality data stored centrally

Especially during supply chain disruptions and material and labor shortages, utility companies benefit from automated processes, so they can focus on ensuring their customers are getting their electricity without disruption. Advanced tech solutions are readily available for implementation to help companies boost their supply chain resilience by understanding and diversifying their supply chains.

Protecting the daily operations of public utilities’ vital services is critical in addressing the material shortages prompted by supply chain disruptions. By leveraging emerging technologies, public utility operators, generators, and power grid leaders set their teams up for success in protecting America’s most critical asset from further disruption. As the grid—and the energy sector in general—face consistent and lasting shortages, it is vital utilities adopt new technology to overcome these challenges and keep the lights on for millions of families, businesses, and critical support facilities (across the country.

—Robert Nawy is CEO of IPKeys Power Partners, provider of industry-leading, secure OT and IoT intelligence platform addressing the complex cybersecurity, data, and communications challenges faced by operators of mission-critical networks for customers in the energy, government, and industrial markets.