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By Andrew Follett
The UK’s electric grid will become more vulnerable to cyber attacks as more green energy comes online, the ex-chairman of the country’s national grid said Monday.
Steve Holliday, the the former chairman of the U.K.’s national grid, said decentralized power from wind turbines and solar panels are hard to protect from cyber threats. Such energy systems also rely on web-connected devices, like smart-meters, that are vulnerable to hacking.
“The UK stands out uniquely on cyber threats,” Holliday told The Guardian. “Nowhere else is as worried as the UK about cyber threats: we are just off the scale on our energy system concerns on cyber.”
The UK has heavily invested in green energy, and is more vulnerable than other countries. Smart-meters in the UK are thought to be particularly vulnerable to malicious hacking.
A hacker can easily knock home solar panels offline, cause them to intentionally overheat or shut down entirely. Hacking can even use solar panels to cause physical damage in the real world, including starting a fire.
“I could have installed spying software that would have had visibility into their home networks, seeing their emails and everything they did online,” Frederic Bret-Mounet, a cyber-security expert who hacked his own solar panels, told The USA Today. ”[T]hese lightly-protected systems could then be all too easily infiltrated, possibly with catastrophic effects on the state’s power grid.”
In an experiment, Mounet figured out the passwords to a home solar system. He said the lack of basic security in solar panels could allow a single hacker to both spy and manipulate the power supply of many homes with rooftop panels.
A 2016 study by the Manhattan Institute found a grid designed to handle intermittent solar and wind power makes it more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Hacking attacks on grids have risen 60 percent a year for the last six years, and utilities are increasingly targeted by both malicious hackers and other countries.
The federal government spends only a trivial amount on electric grid security, compared to funding for green energy. Even highly secure electrical infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber attack, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office.
Worst case scenario cyber attacks could cost the U.S. $250 billion to $1 trillion, according to a study by Lloyds Bank.
A Freedom of Information Act request by The USA Today revealed hackers successfully infiltrated the Department of Energy’s (DOE) computer system 159 times between 2010 and 2014. The DOE was targeted 1,131 times over the same period. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a sub-agency within the DOE that secures the country’s nuclear weapons, was hit with 19 successful cyberattacks over those four years.