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Cyber-security measures must keep pace with increasing role of renewables

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Internet connectivity is helping to make renewables more efficient and increasing their contribution to energy demand, but also increases their vulnerability to malicious attacks. How should operators respond?

As the world becomes more conscious about reducing its environmental footprint, there has been an increased focus on developing renewable energy sources to help replace diminishing and polluting fossil fuels. Renewables now provide approximately 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity, a figure that is set to rise to 30 per cent during 2020.

This shift to becoming more dependent on renewable energy offers many benefits, not least the ability to power cities and towns without having to rely on other countries’ resources. It also significantly reduces costs and is much cleaner for the environment. However, as countries become more dependent on renewables, these energy sources also become a more attractive target for cyber attacks.

When societies depend on a particular resource, it becomes increasingly targeted by malicious criminals and nation-state actors. Cyber criminals know that a population could not survive for long without the resources to supply electricity into people’s homes and that a successful attack could leave communities on their knees.

What are the key steps that renewable energy operators can take to improve security?

The industrial control systems and distribution networks that renewables rely on were often built with efficiency rather than security in mind. Historically, when addressing security issues within the renewables sector, the main focus was on air-gapping machines, isolating them from the outside and IT networks. There was also a greater focus on physical security to make sure plants were sufficiently guarded against intruders. However, as energy firms have increasingly become dependent on internet connectivity to improve efficiency, the security perimeter surrounding plants has become blurred and the number of possible entry points has expanded.

Today, renewable energy plants are rapidly deploying new internet-connected tools and sensors to improve plant processes. For example, jobs that could historically only be performed by humans can now be automated and operational technology is being fitted with sensors that can collect and analyse data to help improve plant performance.

Operational technology (OT) is converging with IT networks in plants creating new risks and increasing the vulnerability of systems to hacking. Renewable-energy plant operators not only have to worry about threats coming in via traditional methods, such as email, they also have to detect and stop threats targeting them via OT infrastructure on the plant floor.

Despite the increased security risks, there are a number of steps that renewable-energy plants can take to improve security.

The first action should be to build and maintain a cyber-security program. This needs to encompass technical and administrative controls; management buy-in; periodic site-specific risk assessments; basic cyber hygiene; backup and disaster recovery plans; cyber-incident remediation plans; change management and cyber-incident insurance, as well as staff training.

Plant operators should also ensure they have the means to monitor all internet-connected technology within a plant. This provides a clear understanding of all the possible entry points the attackers could take advantage of.

Once operators have an inventory of the devices on the network, they need to ensure they are properly secured and that any vulnerabilities are patched or mitigated and supported with a robust vulnerability-management program. Plant operators can also use dedicated industrial control system security tools, which can quickly identify misconfigurations and irregularities, preventing disruptions, safety incidents, expensive repairs or loss of revenue.

Renewable energy provides huge benefits globally and drives positive change throughout the world. However, as society becomes increasingly dependent on renewable energy assets, it becomes a higher-value target for cyber criminals.

To reap the full benefits of connectivity within renewable energy plants, it is vital that security is addressed before new technologies are introduced. This involves developing and maintaining a comprehensive cyber-security program, carrying out inventories on all the technology on the network and deploying security tools which have the ability to spot any security anomalies before disaster strikes.

Andrea Carcano is chief product officer and co-founder of Nozomi Networks.


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