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Rise of ‘Smart Grid’ Raises Security Concerns

June 6th, 2011

ATLANTA (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) – Southern Co. jumped right in when it came to using smart meters.

The company has installed 3.3 million of the units across its four-state territory, including 1.9 million at homes and businesses in Georgia. The two-way technology lets Southern utilities, including Georgia Power, read meters remotely, saving money on personnel and transportation costs.

Smart meters can also let customers track their energy usage in real time and do things such as remotely turn off a power-sucking appliance in the middle of the day, prompted by a signal telling them it’s costing them more to use electricity at that time.

But there’s an obstacle that has prevented Southern’s utilities from turning on that capability: concern that the high-tech, two-way capabilities of smart technology open the grid to cyberattacks.

The fear is that hackers could steal customer bank data or cause a massive blackout.

“Until we satisfy ourselves that the cybersecurity problems have been solved, we will be conservative,” Southern Co. Chief Executive Tom Fanning said this week at a smart grid conference hosted by Atlanta-based Southern and Georgia Tech.

“If your iPhone gets a bug in it, so what, you get a new one,” Fanning said. “If the electrical network of the United States gets a bug in it, we’re headed to trouble.”

Utilities nationwide have started to install smart meters. The government offered $4 million in federal stimulus dollars in efforts to encourage utilities to use the new technology.

Southern already has spent $1 billion on what Fanning called “cyberstuff,” which will save the company money over time. The issue now is how much the smart electric technology will allow people to do.

“There will be without question … the ability to do all sorts of neat things that have value, but I just can’t say what that is yet,” Fanning said. “Everything beyond the meter, I don’t know what that’s going to involve and whether Southern should play.”

Southern hires hackers to look for security breaches in its grid. The company considers it an “all-threats” approach, Higginbottom said. The focus is to protect the system, block the gateway into the network and into the meters.

So far, the company hasn’t found any major vulnerabilities with the meters or on its grid.

“We are confident that the systems that we selected do have appropriate security measures,” Southern spokesman Steve Higginbottom said.

Each part of the smart grid has its own vulnerabilities, said Carson Day, a research engineer at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

For example, smart meters allow utilities to remotely turn electricity on and off at a home or business. If a hacker got into a smart meter system and turned off 100,000 meters, the rest of the grid would overload and become unstable, leading to blackouts.

An experiment dubbed “the Aurora project” showed how a $1 million diesel generator could be destroyed when a hacker with remote access to controls at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory was able to continuously turn it on and off.

“There is a concern, obviously there there could be problems, but people are looking at it,” Day said.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has identified five sets of standards for smart grids and cybersecurity to be considered by state and federal energy regulators. Universities and national labs also are doing their own research on security for smart grids.

Georgia Power started installing the smart meters in metro Atlanta, Rome and Cartersville. All 2.3 million customers will have a smart meter by the end of 2012, company spokeswoman Konswello Monroe said.

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Kristi E. Swartz

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