Jon Wellinghoff, Obama’s energy futurist
The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is committed to renewable energy.
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"This is another grid option that would take a lot of power that's now constrained in the Midwest, that can be developed - wind energy there - and move it to all the load centers [cities] on the East Coast," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Similarly, lines could be built across the Rockies to connect wind power in Montana and Wyoming to the West Coast. Instead of building power lines from the Midwest to the East Coast, "a lot of people would say, 'No, no, let's look first look at the wind offshore,' " he says.
Whether it's wind from the Plains or the ocean, the resulting variability will have an impact on grid reliability if action isn't taken, Wellinghoff says.
"You're going to have to upgrade this whole grid here," he says, gesturing to the East Coast. "You can't just move [power] from offshore to load centers onshore without looking at the effect on reliability."
Reliability of the grid remains paramount – Job No. 1 for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But if boosting renewable power to 25 percent by 2025 – the Obama administration's goal – means spreading Internet-connected controllers across substations and transmission networks, then cybersecurity to protect them from increasing Internet-based threats is critical.
Yet a recent review by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation overseen by FERC found more than two-thirds of power generating companies denied they had any "critical assets" potentially vulnerable to cyberattack. Those denials concern Wellinghoff.
"We are asking the responding utilities to go back and reveal what are the number of critical assets and redetermine that for us," he says. "We want to be sure that we have fully identify all the critical assets that need to be protected.”
It would be especially troubling if, as was recently reported by The Wall Street Journal, Russian and Chinese entities have hacked into the US power grid and left behind malware that could be activated at a later time to disable the grid.
But Wellinghoff says he has checked on the type of intrusion referred to in the article and denies successful grid hacks by foreign nations that have left dangerous malware behind.
While acknowledging that individuals overseas have tried to hack the grid frequently, he says, "I'm not aware of any successful hacks that have implanted into the grid any kinds of malware or other code that could later be activated."
But others say there is a problem. In remarks at the University of Texas at Austin in April, Joel Brenner, the national counterintelligence executive, the nation’s most senior counterintelligence coordinator, indicated there are threats to the grid.
“We have seen Chinese network operations inside certain of our electricity grids,” he said in prepared remarks. “Do I worry about those grids, and about air traffic control systems, water supply systems, and so on? You bet I do.”
In an e-mailed statement, Wellinghoff's press secretary, Mary O'Driscoll, says the chairman defers to senior intelligence officials on some questions concerning grid vulnerability to cyberattack: "The Commission isn't in the intelligence gathering business and therefore can't comment on that type of information."