Utilities are the lifelines of social and economic activities.
The vulnerabilities of utility infrastructures have been laid bare on several occasions in recent years. Outages, caused by climate change-driven extreme weather events and cyberattacks, disrupt normal day-to-day life at many levels. The onus to build resilience and fortify the critical physical and digital infrastructure in order to avoid and mitigate risk of damage, attacks, and consequent service shutdowns, rests on the service providers.
Utility service providers are increasingly leveraging technologies such as smart analytics, cloud, IoT, mobility solutions, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) at scale as well as enhanced cybersecurity tools and practices to solve new challenges and mitigate impacts
Utilities sector is the backbone for growth
The utilities sector has been at the core of successive industrial revolutions and burgeoning economic activities.
Basic amenities including water, electricity, gas, and other energy and waste management services have powered economic growth and advancement across industries and communities. Damage to infrastructure supporting these amenities leads to the imminent disruption of crucial services, resulting in magnified outages and stifling key economic and life activities. For example, the economic reliance of modern-day society on electricity supply is so high, that an outage can cost millions of dollars to the economy. The United States Department of Electricity (DoE) estimates that outages are costing the U.S. economy USD 150 billion annually. Safe to say that utility services are the lifelines that keep the modern economy going.
The case for building resilience
Maintaining modern, flexible, and secure networks of pipelines and grids that support transmission and distribution of electricity, oil, natural gas, and water are fundamental to delivering affordable and reliable services.
Utility infrastructure in most developed geographies was built decades ago and requires expensive and continuous maintenance. For example, water distribution pipelines in the UK were laid decades ago. It is common for burst plumbing lines to be reported in winter every year when the water freezes in these old pipelines, requiring these water lines to be repaired and re-laid while continuing to extend the network to newer areas every year. While keeping the infrastructure going, it needs significant investments for modernization to address to growing needs of a 21st-century economy. President Biden’s recent unveiling of a USD 2 trillion plan to remodel and upgrade infrastructure in the USA substantiates the imminence of the same.
Digital upgrades and imminent cybersecurity challenges
The utility industry is set for massive transformation by embracing the digitalization of processes and operations.
Utilities are investing in digital technologies to enhance reliability and safety and to meet evolving needs of modern-day customers. Digitalization, however, has brought with it increased exposure to cyberattacks in recent times. Malicious hackers are becoming more tenacious in their strikes on critical operational networks like the Colonial Pipeline fuel infrastructure.
The cyberattack on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in 2018 was one of the earliest indicators of vulnerabilities susceptible to cyberthreats in utility infrastructure. Subsequent attacks such as the SolarWinds one in 2020, trickled down to various levels of customers and infamously breached and exposed vast amounts of sensitive data. In 2021, cyberthreat actors compromised platforms deployed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and numerous government agencies by hacking the network’s secure remote access. Nearly $5 million was extracted as a ransom for the software decryption key required to unscramble the attack on the Colonial Pipeline in May 2021. These cyberattacks leave states at the risk of dealing with contaminated water, gas line leakages, and other casualties. Naturally, systemic cybersecurity upgrades are in order. America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2018 call for large water providers to conduct security risk assessments and incorporate their results into organizational cybersecurity policies. Other utility spaces are also expected to comply with similar regulatory measures that emphasize on active cybersecurity threat monitoring.
Replacement or removal of hardware for upgrades is an expensive exercise and involves extensive service outages. The challenge lies in mapping existing, decades-old infrastructure with appropriate, advanced cybersecurity solutions without making incremental changes which may elevate a network’s vulnerability to cyberattacks.
Challenges posed by climate change
Much has been said and written about the impact of climate change and global warming on life and earth in recent years.
Reports state that climate change could wipe off up to 18% of global economic gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050. While these may appear as doomsday scenarios, the utilities and energy sector has been dealing with the increasing impact and frequency of natural disasters and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, typhoons, heatwaves, wild-fires, and storms.
Some recent instances include:
Arson and acts of terrorism targeting utility infrastructure
On the other hand, physical attacks on utility infrastructure caused by arson and acts of terrorism, are becoming increasingly frequent.
Many countries are actively developing strategies to plan and support efforts to safeguard critical infrastructures such as power, water, and telecommunications against potential attacks. To ensure good governance and secure upkeep of the state economy, retain public confidence and ensure safety, critical infrastructure owners and operators are being urged to assess potential vulnerabilities and consciously invest in enhancing their security posture.
To avert and mitigate the impact of risks and resultant shutdowns of services on communities and enterprises, organizations running critical services must build resilience in both their physical and digital infrastructure.
Technological solutions to leverage
With climate emergencies amplifying the level of threats as well as impact, players in the utility sector are shifting to more resilient strategies.
The pandemic has turned the spotlight on the necessity of building resilience for utility companies and has driven home the need to embrace digitalization.
Leveraging digital tools in combination with state policies and best practices can help better predict and mitigate the extent of the impact of extreme weather events as well as aid in faster recovery after the event passes. Advanced technologies including AI/ML, IoT, and cloud-first solutions can help simulate and assess the level of preparedness for threats in a controlled, virtual environment. Such simulations aid the identification of vulnerabilities within the infrastructure, which could be remediated appropriately.
Modern technological solutions can be built to effectively achieve real-time monitoring and maintenance measures. With capabilities such as optical character recognition (OCR) and intelligent character recognition (ICR), image and text processing can be digitalized, and data entry of information such as infrastructure asset details can be automated. Satellite imaging is another safe and terrain-independent solution that aids round-the-clock surveillance of utility infrastructure as well as vegetation and weather. Further possibilities of tech-enabled maintenance solutions encompass:
Digitally enabled smart solutions can endow susceptible infrastructure elements with a greater degree of resilience. Some of these solutions are preventive while others focus on consistent maintenance and monitoring. A prospective slew of digitally enhanced preventive measures include: