With digital technologies inextricably intertwined in the running of critical infrastructure, including energy generation and distribution, electricity grids have become prime targets of hackers, terrorists and rival nations.
Andre Froneman, Industrial Cyber Security Specialist with the Grove Group, said at the recently held Solar Power Africa event in Cape Town that in South Africa we will also see an increase in cyber attacks as more Independent Power Producers enter the market.
He said that in 2022 Eskom fell victim to a ransomware attack. “Crucial” information from the company’s servers was offered up for sale by the hackers on the dark web.
And in 2019, a ransomware attack encrypted City Power’s databases, applications and network – customers were unable to buy electricity and City Power was delayed in responding to blackouts.
Froneman said nation states also attacked each others systems, to gain market advantage. He forecast that this would increase given the shift in recalibrating energy systems and setting up new ones.
Nations waging cyberattacks on each others’ infrastructure
It was not uncommon for countries to load ransomware onto SA’s infrastructure systems, he said: “As South Africa has aligned with BRICS, Western states have ramped up their cyber warfare activities on our national and municipal infrastructure.”
How utilities use ICT to enable reliable, safe generation
Froneman said electricity utilities can be affected by cyberattacks across the value chain.
In terms of the generation side, for example, legacy systems and clean energy infrastructure designed without security in mind run the risk of a disruption of services and ransomeware attacks.
Municipalities are particularly at risk
Hackers are targeting specific systems or operators to steal intellectual property, sabotage equipment or gain access to sensitive data, he said.
Step up and step down transformers have become a key target due to the ease of compromise and distributed geographical architecture.
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Froneman said municipalities are particularly vulnerable as they do not have the cyber skills to combat an attack.
“Cyber teams and electrical teams are not in sync for cyber threats. There is also rarely budget for infrastructure cyber security.
“Smart grids introduce new attack vectors through connected devices and communication networks.
“Hackers can exploit vulnerabilities in smart meters, sensors or communication protocols to manipulate data or disrupt operations.”
US taking steps to unearth new protective tech
Last month, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $70 million in funding to support research into technologies designed to increase resilience and reduce risks to energy delivery infrastructure.
The focus of the research is a variety of hazards, including cyber and physical threats, natural disasters, and climate-change fuelled extreme weather events.
International financial services provider Allianz said critical infrastructure systems like those driving power generation, water treatment, electricity production and other platforms are interconnected to form the energy “grid”.
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“Although beneficial to the public this grid is vulnerable to cyberattacks by “hacktivists” or terrorists. Critical infrastructure, like power generation and distribution, is becoming more complex and reliant on networks of connected devices.
“Just decades ago, power grids and other critical infrastructure operated in isolation. Now they are far more interconnected, both in terms of geography and across sectors.”
Tthe energy sector, said Aliianz, is one of the main targets of cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure, but it is not the only one.
“Transport, public sector services, telecommunications and critical manufacturing industries are also vulnerable.”
Cyberattacks on electricity infrastructure on the up
Last August, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that cyberattacks are on the increase in the electricity sector.
“Yet IEA analysis indicates that utilities face serious difficulties in finding and retaining the skilled professionals needed to defend themselves.
“As with most industries, utilities increasingly use digital technologies to better manage plants, grids, and business operations.”
The IEA said this contributes to energy security by improving quality of supply, providing additional services to customers. It further enables clean energy transitions through the integration of distributed energy resources.
But this progress comes with risks.
“Digital systems, telecommunication equipment, and sensors throughout the grid increase utilities’ exposure, as each element provides an additional entry point for cybercriminal organisations.” ESI
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