Last updated: July 28, 2009 - 9:02am
Electric utilities vying for $3.9 billion in new federal "smart grid" grants will need to prove that they are taking steps to prevent cyberattacks as they move to link nearly all elements of the US power grid to the public Internet. The requirements from the Energy Department come amid mounting concern from security experts that many existing smart-grid efforts do not have sufficient built-in protections against computer hacking, such as new "smart meters" that put information about consumers' power use onto the Internet, grid-management software and other equipment. The smart-grid spending in the federal stimulus package is intended to create jobs and improve the efficiency and reliability of the electricity grid by lowering peak demand, reducing energy consumption, integrating more renewable energy sources and easing the pressure to build new coal-fired power plants. Many of those efficiency gains will be made possible by new technology being built on top of the existing power grid, such as smart meters, which provide real-time feedback on power consumption patterns and levels. An estimated 8 million smart meters are used in the United States today, and more than 50 million more could be installed in at least two dozen states over the next five years, according to the Edison Foundation's Institute for Electric Efficiency. Yet security researchers have found that these devices often are the weakest link in the smart-grid chain. Smart meters give consumers direct access to information about their power usage and the ability to manage that usage over the Web, but that two-way communication also opens up the possibility that the grid could be attacked from the outside.
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