What if this were fifty years into the future and a nation-state attack brought down the power grid? Pretty scary – but you’d still be able to get around. We’d go agrarian for a while, huddle together with our neighbors, pack the bags and get out of town for a bit while the city figured out how to turn the lights back on. But what if all our cars were electric – and ran on that same grid? And, what if our electric vehicles contributed to the issue?

First, let’s examine the nascent EV industry and the national electricity situation that will inherit it. We’ll look at some challenges, cyber and otherwise, to adopting this new technology, why a stable grid is so important (and what EVs can do to further that cause), and why anything connected to the nation’s electricity supply can’t be secured with any-old-cybersecurity measures.

The Electric Vehicle Industry is Buzzing

Last year, Tesla managed to sell over 300,000 electric vehicles. Deloitte reports that the jump was 15% from 2018 to 2019 alone, and forecasts an annual compound rate of 29 percent over the next ten years, with global sales estimated to clear $30 million by 2030. And, with recent shifts to more sustainable fuel sources, it might be harder in the coming years not to switch to a car with a charging station.

After all, according to some “[an EV] is cheaper to run than a traditional petrol vehicle, it is easier to maintain since it does not have too many movable parts, it possesses several benefits for the environment, some of which are no contribution towards air pollution, no carbon emissions, it uses eco-friendly materials and bio-based parts for the functioning of electric vehicles, [and] it also uses renewable energy sources to charge itself up.”

While comprising only 3 percent of market share now, a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance states that nearly six in ten of all global car sales will be from electric vehicles by 2040. We’re going to need safe, reliable electric infrastructure to support that shift.

EVs Hit Bumps on the Road

So now that gas prices are at their highest and non-petroleum-based forms of transportation are finally ready to hit the market en masse – the grid is under attack. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire as cars go from one highly attacked sector to another (think: Colonial pipeline). However, federal cybersecurity standards are in place to protect the energy sector, and with the right team of experts, power utilities can be ready to face the cyber challenges ahead. And judging by the recent attacks on the sector, they’ll need to be.

A substation at a power plant just south of San Jose faced literal fire in February of this year, marking “the most serious attack on our power grid in history.” In Ukraine, experts managed to shut down a Russian-launched malware attack on the grid just hours before it was set to detonate (it bore a resemblance to a 2016 incident). And, analysts are already speculating what would happen if such an attack were to happen to the US energy sector. According to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, it already might be: “The United States faces a well-documented and increasing cyber threat from malicious actors seeking to disrupt the electricity Americans rely on to power our homes and businesses,” she said in a statement. This could all negatively impact the stability – and viability – of EVs on the road.

Besides cybersecurity dilemmas, electric vehicles are hitting a few more potholes:

  • Can I use your charger? Let’s face it, a lot of (okay, most) places just aren’t equipped to charge your Tesla. Not yet anyway, and the infrastructure may be many moons in coming – especially with the cost of charging stations ranging from $2,500 to $35,800. Gas, anyone?
  • Are we really reducing emissions? But then again, maybe not. We still face a high reliance on fossil fuels, creating “grey electricity grids” and that lessens the “green impact” of EV vehicles. It’s an inconvenient truth, to be sure, and one that slows EV adoption. While that’s bad for the EV market, it gives the electricity industry a little more time to prepare. Brace for impact.
  • Total gridlock. The grid might burn out. Yes, the current electricity infrastructure was built to handle a lot, but maybe not this much. Plus, given political and environmental factors, the energy supply can be unpredictable and looming cybercrime only exacerbates the issue. Add to that the fact that new infrastructure needs to be built where the EV market will hit the hardest (and that’s a thing we’re still studying), and you see the dilemma.

So, the sudden on-staging of a large load of EVs could have some effects on the power grid: fair. Are there any methods to combat power grid failure that we can adopt now? Maybe.

Smart Grids and EV: Offsetting the Cost

As many already know, Texas has its own power grid. No, we’re not suggesting you build your own, but some recent tests done with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) may give some insights on how to better use the one in your city. It’s called a Smart Grid, and it combines the smart apps we all know and love with the electric industry – which we don’t really think about. How does it get buy-in? By saving you money. Now you’re listening.

The system pairs everyday users with their power company to dynamically control the use of big power users like water heaters, heat pumps, and EV charging stations. Because it relies on a consumer/utility agreement, it’s known as “transactive” and because it works (at least in beta) it can save you up to 15% on your annual utility bill. That’s great – but how does that protect the grid?

Because large loads – like EV charging stations, heating and cooling systems, and football stadiums – can crash the grid, bringing the kind of instability we’re trying to avoid and generally being bad for business. Adopting a transactive method like the above can help offset the overall impact of electric vehicles on the power grid and keep things running smoothly. As we move towards renewable energy sources, it becomes harder to maintain stability in the grid because those sources – wind, water, solar – fluctuate. In addition to the Texas test above, EVs are continuing to be investigated for ways they can contribute to energy reliability (and give money back).

How does this help with cyber safety? It fights the same fight. Cybersecurity measures are put in place to prevent disruption to the nation’s critical national infrastructure: in this case, the grid. As attacks begin to proliferate – see yet another cyberattack on the electricity industry here – a weak grid, even due to an influx of well-intentioned electric vehicles, is the last thing we need. Anything that helps distribute the load and keeps the lights on contributes to the fight to protect our critical national interests: in this case, the grid.

Why Cybersecurity is Different for the Electric Industry

It’s not that complicated. CNI sectors should build their cybersecurity posture against national cybersecurity standards. And, they should have – or hire – experts that can take whatever security posture they have now and make it do so.

As if electricity providers didn’t face enough cyber challenges, they may now have to carry on knowing the future of the automotive industry will soon rely on their power grids. And, with that, they may soon be facing the cyber threats of the two industries combined. No pressure. Fortunately, technology works both ways, and the advanced threats being seen meet their match in advanced cybersecurity techniques. You just have to know (and choose) the right ones.

Companies – and the electric industry – can do more than wonder and wait. Now is the time to build, analyze, fine-tune and strength-test your security posture so it scales to advanced threats in the future. Critical National Infrastructure is vital to the everyday interests of millions of people and can’t just be protected using “good enough” prevention techniques. This isn’t a retail operation, and losses in CNI (specifically the power sector) could spell national disaster, not just a bottom-line loss.

“Utilities rank fourth among the industries spending the most on this technology – but without securing these new technologies, the risks may make people question whether they outweigh the benefits,” cites the World Economic Forum. And, getting the most out of those technologies means using them to build a cybersecurity posture based on federal cybersecurity standards for protecting Critical National Infrastructure: in this case, the grid.

ITEGRITI is a cybersecurity consulting and advisory firm that specializes in protecting Critical National Infrastructure. We provide managed services to help your CNI comply with national cybersecurity standards. Find out more here