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Open source, collaboration could be stronger paths to protecting U.S. bulk power system

President Trump’s recent Executive Order banning bulk power system equipment from nations considered hostile to the U.S. has provoked many to mull the future of the grid supply chain.

A bigger, long-term question may be how to implant greater transparency in an ever more automated and digital grid. And yet another challenge is how to acknowledge the true vulnerabilities of the American power system and get it what it needs to improve quickly.

Shuli Goodman, founder and executive director of Linux Foundation project LF Energy, said the executive order certainly  is focused on China and fears of equipment from State Grid China and other Chinese firms which might include spying on the U.S. power system interactions once in place. The biggest piece needed, in her opinion, is a movement toward open source coding and communication technologies in place of those black boxes on much equipment.

The issue, then, is not really about returning every type of manufacturing to the U.S. That ship has sailed.

“We’re talking about a massive piece of hardware made with extremely sophisticated electrical grade materials (some of which) we actually don’t have that capacity in the U.S. any longer,” Goodman said. “There is a physical issue but the parts that are more interesting and extraordinary ” involve the challenges of controlling bi-directional feeds and the role of black boxes in T&D equipment and cybersecurity.

The Linux Foundation is a developer’s organization that created LF Energy to pursue multi-vendor collaboration on open source technologies in the energy and electricity sectors. It was formed with support from Europe transmission giant RTE.

David Wheeler, who is the director of open source supply chain security at the Linux Foundation, sees the EO as a response to deep fears about foreign interference in grid operations.

“We’re buying very expensive equipment, and it’s a critical issue if the U.S. has no idea whether the system can be controlled and taken down,” Wheeler said. “That’s an understandable big risk.”

A majority of grid equipment hardware is now imported from other nations, often China. That isn’t all bad, Goodman noted, as State Grid and other companies have brought innovations that help reduce electron loss in high voltage transformer.

And any EO banning State Grid equipment would be problematic as global firms such as ABB, Siemens and GE all have plant operations in China.

Perhaps a key thing for spearheading American evolution into a future, more distributed, decentralized and interconnected electricity system is not to look backward at China but forward to Europe.

“It’s so sensitive in talking with Americans, (as) we like to think we’re completely on the game,” Goodman. “The truth is in Europe, we can’t tell if it’s five or ten years ahead of us, but they are ahead of us. Europe is driving forward decarbonization and collaboration across boundaries.”

A lot of the new energy integration software coming out of Europe is open source. Those projects will be accelerating in the coming years, they pointed out.

And the U.S. should ramp up its effort sooner than later.

“There was a time, believe it or not, that software couldn’t harm the grid,” Wheeler said. “Then an Aurora generator test a number of years ago (at the Idaho National Lab) caused a diesel generator to explode.”

And, if you’re a plant manager wanting to avoid nightmares, don’t even think about the Russian cyberattack on the Ukrainian power system nearly five years ago that shut it down for a time. A 2019 probe into an American power plant did not do any real damage, but exposed those frailties.

“If an outside attacker can do damage, imagine what would happen if somebody was controlling it from the inside,” Wheeler said.

Open visibility into the inner workings perhaps is the first, best step to protecting the grid, they added.

(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering and POWERGEN International. He can be reached at 918-831-9177 and [email protected]).