Cyber security a vital link for energy networks

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by Michael Paparo, Policy Manager, Standards Australia

As electricity network owners face increasing cyber security threats, standards have a significant role to play in keeping our networks safe from attack.

The rapid increase in the use of digital products and services across the globe is happening at an incredible rate, with no signs of slowing down. Australian consumers and businesses have widely embraced digital technologies, from online banking and shopping to government services. Concurrently, the energy grid in Australia is adapting to this new digital reality to meet the needs of energy consumers now and into the future.

This trend presents new opportunities for economic growth across Australia, but also presents new challenges and risks. According to the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network, in the six months to July 2017, there were nearly 23,700 attempted cyber attacks reported with the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

This demonstrates the possible range of potential victims, including energy networks, particularly with the rise of state and non-state actors conducting attacks for a range of economic, political and social reasons. To ensure the energy grid continues to be able to maintain the same high level of security available to consumers and distributors, standards have a clear role to play.

In with the new

Like many sectors in the Australian economy, the energy and electrotechnology sector is evolving. Not only is the physical infrastructure changing to incorporate a growing mix of renewables, but the storage of energy and decentralisation of the grid is also increasing in prominence.

Gone are the days of every single consumer drawing electricity from a centralised grid. More and more consumers are turning to things like their own rooftop solar panels to power their homes, with surplus energy fed back into the grid. These new consumers and producers of energy are referred to as “prosumers”. According to one report, as at March 2017, almost one in four Australian households owned home solar panels, proving just how widespread user-generated power is becoming.  

Standards Australia and the energy sector

Standards Australia has been around for almost 100 years, developing standards with the help of industry, consumers and government across many different sectors. The energy sector is one of the core fields of work with a portfolio shaped heavily by the incredible pace of innovation, and the need for safety for the thousands of professionals relying on standards every day. The safety also extends to consumers with daily interaction with hundreds of different electrical installations.

There are standout publications, such as the Wiring Rules, which are used heavily by industry, and there are some new and exciting projects underway. For example, at any one time there are a number of standards open for public comment. In the energy sector at the moment, these standards available for public comment cover areas such as electricity metering equipment, safety of transformers, reactors, power supply units and combinations, as well as safety of some household electrical appliances.

Just as significant as the standards guiding electrical professionals in the energy sector are the growing number of cyber security standards, particularly those internationally developed standards. The 27000 series of cyber security standards, published by the Joint Technical Committee 1 of International Organisation for Standardisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission, provide guidance for organisations on how to manage information and risks. Alarmingly, Australia has a low rate of uptake on this particular set of standards, at half the rate of the rest of the world, exposing all sectors of the economy to a greater threat of cyber attacks.

The energy sector is significantly driven by the need for safety; however there is also a focus on the standards in this industry being able to promote and facilitate clean energy, reliability of supply and performance. These additional pressures on the standards in the sector prove how vital the role of standards has become as energy networks across Australia undergo sweeping change.

The many decades of developing standards for the energy industry have also seen some pioneering projects delivered, but it is the recently signed agreement with Energy Networks Australia that is combining the innovation in the energy sector with the need for increased cyber security measures.

Roadmap for the plan ahead

Standards Australia and Energy Networks Australia are working towards developing a standardised method of increasing security of the electricity grid. There is a transition happening in the energy sector, and the work underpinned by this agreement with Energy Networks Australia has been largely borne out of the rapid pace with which digital technology has been coupled with traditional energy infrastructure.

This technological growth is changing business models, physical infrastructure requirements and presenting new security challenges for operators, businesses and consumers. The changes are presenting increased cyber security threats with more points at which malicious cyber activity can enter the network, made possible by more consumers being able to directly access the grid.

This project will result in a Roadmap Report, developed by Standards Australia in consultation with Energy Networks Australia and relevant stakeholders. The Grid Cyber Security Standards Roadmap Report will include:

A collation of stakeholder perspectives on the existing Australian grid cyber security standards

Recommendations for Australian participation in any relevant international standards committees

A recommendation for the development of new or the adoption of relevant international standards to support grid cyber security in Australia

An explanation of the standards development pathway and the process used by Standards Australia including a prospective timeline

Once complete, this comprehensive report is expected to give industry, government and consumers faith in the continuing rollout of even more advanced technology to support the energy networks of the future.

Early days for tomorrow’s energy

While the agreement between Standards Australia and Energy Networks Australia is in its early stages, there are dozens of projects underway in Australia and at an international level to ensure the standards guiding the energy sector are doing so to benefit industry and consumers alike. On this specific project, the Roadmap Report is expected to be completed towards the end of 2018, with the recommendations to be aimed at preparing the energy network for many years to come.

It is following these types of projects that standards are developed to encourage innovation and security. The application of internationally aligned Australian Standards will continue to support a strong and secure Australian energy grid for industry, government and consumers.

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