The ESYS position paper describes measures to ensure the energy supply. © Shutterstock/urbans

Resilient energy systems can prevent blackouts

24. May 2017

The recent global cyberattack has shown: Digitally interconnected infrastructures are vulnerable. This does not exclude modern, digitally controlled energy systems. Attacks by hackers or terrorist as well as extreme weather conditions threaten the energy supply. How then can a blackout be avoided? In the position paper “A resilient design of the energy system”, the Academies‘ Project “Energy Systems of the Future” (ESYS) provides answers to this question. Resilient energy systems are not immune to disruptions, but they remain functional even in the case of serious disturbances or, at least, recover quickly and learn from crises.

Deutsche Bahn, Renault and Telefónica, British hospitals, the Russian Ministry of the Interior: Hackers took advantage of a security gap in outdated operating systems to infect at least 200,000 computer systems in 150 countries with a malware in order to extort ransom. The German Federal Minister of Transport, Alexander Dobrindt, now calls for improved IT security for critical infrastructures such as the energy supply system. acatech – National Academy of Science and Engineering, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities share this view. In their joint position paper, however, they add further requirements for a secure future energy supply: The system should be designed at all levels so as to remain functional in case of disturbances or to recover quickly and to learn from crises.

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  • Anja Lapac
  • Communications Officer
  • Energy Systems of the Future

Hackers manipulating smart meters and grids is only one conceivable scenario. Likewise, snowstorms or floods resulting from climate change can damage electricity masts and heat waves can cause power failures. If electric mobility or power-to-gas plants are interconnected in the electricity-, heat- and transport sectors, disturbances in one sector are likely to spread to the others. The more interlinked the energy system becomes, the more it is exposed to attacks, making it harder to estimate possible risks. Hence, resilience is the security concept of the future.

According to Ortwin Renn, scientific director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), governments, authorities and companies are all called upon to develop long-term resilience strategies for a secure energy supply. “To be sure, these investments cost money. However, they pay off in the long term, because they can avert immense damage from the economy and society,” says Renn, who chairs the relevant ESYS Working Group.

Regional blackouts can be better compensated if various different technologies are used to generate power and control the facilities. Wind turbines, for instance, are not affected by heat waves. Gas power plants can generate electricity when wind and solar radiation are scarce. If different software is used to control smart grids, single manipulations cannot spread to other systems. The ESYS Working Group therefore proposes to facilitate the market entry for alternative software providers.

Today, only entire city districts or streets can be separated from the grid. A better solution would be to throttle the power demand according to relevance in the event of a crisis: Illuminated advertisements and street lamps could be switched off, while hospitals, police stations and fire brigades would continue to be supplied with electricity.

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