Former Homeland Defense official issues ‘call to arms’ to strengthen grid resilience

Paul Stockton, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and America’s Security Affairs, issued a “call to arms” in his keynote address Tuesday at PJM’s Grid 20/20: Focus on Security & Resilience.

“We need a deeper understanding of the nature of grid resilience and of what it’s going to take to strengthen that resilience against increasing severe threats,” Stockton said.

Amid a landscape of emerging physical and cyber threats to the reliability of the bulk power grid, along with the increasing involvement of government in grid operations, Stockton identified three challenges for PJM and its stakeholders.

First, a strong set of “conservative operations” needs to be developed in preparation for potential cyberattacks, he said.

Stockton lauded PJM’s progress in this area, saying its plans are “by far the most detailed and provide a very strong foundation on which to build as adversaries build their own capabilities to launch cyberattacks.”

In addition to preparing a conservative operations strategy, the thresholds that would trigger their use must be clearly articulated. That’s tricky when you’re dealing with amorphous threats that aren’t as obvious as a hurricane barreling toward the coast, he said.

“What’s the equivalent to getting ready for cyberattacks, and when would you know to implement?” Stockton asked.

It may be time to consider a consequence-based approach, he said. “For example, consider: How many entities have discovered malware on their systems? Do they serve critical assets? Are the affected entities in a single region, or nationwide?”

The U.S. needs to be ready to “raise the cyber walls,” Stockton said, even to the degree of being prepared to halt market operations.

Second, Stockton urged PJM and stakeholders to prepare for information warfare with adversaries potentially including the powerhouses of Russia and China.

“We can count on Russia or other major adversaries conducting false social media campaigns,” he said. “They’re always going to have a political goal for attacking us.”

He noted that, while the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council provided excellent public communications during the recent hurricanes, false messaging propagated on social media led to overwhelming, unnecessary calls to 911 and panic in otherwise safe areas such as storm shelters. And those reports weren’t even necessarily orchestrated with the intent of disrupting restoration operations.

Finally, he said, PJM and its stakeholders must prepare for what he called the unprecedented involvement of government officials in grid operations during perceived emergencies.

“We need to anticipate deep government involvement,” Stockton said.

“The FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act gives Secretary Perry far-reaching powers to issue emergency orders to all of the companies in this room to do whatever he thinks is necessary to protect or restore the bulk power system,” he said.

With that in mind, industry leaders need to step up and help the Department of Energy figure out what such orders would look like and what would best sustain and restore the grid.

Stockton said all of the challenges he put forward further one theme: They illuminate how resilience differs from reliability and why it is increasingly vital. Meanwhile, they offer immediate opportunities for progress and long-term transmission planning.

“We’re facing an increasingly severe international environment,” he said. “That’s all the more reason to care about resilience and, most importantly, build practical steps to strengthen resilience.”