The ransomware attack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline – a Texas-to-New Jersey conveyor of 2.5 million barrels a day of diesel, gasoline and jet fuel – is just the latest example of why an expanded view of our nation’s energy grid needs to be taken seriously.
DarkSide, the cybercriminal syndicate that perpetrated the attack, managed to pull off the largest global disruption of energy supplies since Saudi Arabian oil supplies were attacked with drones in 2019. It is the second major disruption of the U.S. energy system in 2021 following winter storm Uri’s bludgeoning of the Texas electric grid in February. As with Uri, the Colonial hack created enormous uncertainty and chaos, stalling crude oil refining and spiking commodity energy prices. When overhead power lines can be taken down by extreme weather and underground pipes can be shut down by hackers, it is time for a new kind of catastrophe-resistant thinking to take center stage.
Decentralize and Diversify
Decentralization is the starting point. Power failures in California, for example, have proven that operating entities controlling vast swaths of the grid are too big to not fail. Microgrids, disconnectable from main grids when necessary and supported by site-storable energy, are key to adapting to both natural and net-based threats. Batteries as energy storing devices aren’t a present-day answer as they are just as hackable as the Colonial Pipeline. Malware can easily brick a computer-controlled battery system by tricking it to overcharge.
Diversification is next. In the name of decarbonization, cities around the country are adopting all-electrification building codes. An all-electric homogenous power system presents a giant, nearly irresistible attack surface to both volatile weather and web-based criminals. Like the body’s own highly diversified immune system, energy diversity made possible by today’s climate-friendly energy solutions creates resilience in the face of continuous attack.
3D Grid Capabilities
Lines overhead and pipes underground form our current 2D grid. Both have shown themselves to be vulnerable, which is why today, 3D grid investment is essential. A well-configured 3D grid tethers today’s 2D grid to a system of storable energy that never degrades, is adaptable to conditions, easily deployable to meet people’s needs and impervious to systemic cyberattack. It is decarbonized, dependable and dexterous to a wide variety of needs ranging from heavy-duty transportation to residential heatingIt may be surprising to know that today, we have all the components of a 3D grid. Industrial-scale wind and solar costs continue to fall while their electric generation capacity continues to rise. At the same time, pipelines can be converted to carry hydrogen and novel fuels like green ammonia and dimethyl ether. In the middle, climate-friendly propane is already at work. It is abundant, affordable, and well-suited for a wide variety of stationary and non-stationary uses. This combination isn’t just a good defense. It is the 3D energy grid we need to future-proof ourselves against the long-term risks associated with climate change as well as the episodic catastrophes we know are coming from future hurricanes and hackers.