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New year, new concerns: A look at what digital utilities can expect in 2021

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Claus Vetter's picture
Global Product Group Manager, Automation and Communication, Grid Automation BU Hitachi ABB Power Grids

Claus Vetter is the Global Product Group Manager for Grid Automation and Communication Global Product Group (GPG). (Group Senior Vice President and Head of Automation and Communication Products...

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  • Jan 25, 2021 4:50 pm GMT
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-01 - State of the Industry, click here for more

The utility sector, like every other industry, is facing major disruptions to their operations and workforce. Yet despite the challenges of the past year, utilities have shown their resiliency as they worked tirelessly to provide continuous power while keeping their employees and customers safe.

As we all plan for 2021, I wanted to share my thoughts on concerns that utility leaders should keep in mind as they continue to adapt to shifting customer needs, the implementation of new innovative technologies and ever evolving market conditions.

1. Cyberattacks on physical infrastructure, such as the electric grid, network of oil and gas pipelines, and the economy at large are here to stay. Today, even the most advanced cybersecurity solutions need to be updated on a regular basis to ensure the exceptional level of security necessary to protect vital infrastructure such as power grids. This is crucial in a world where developments in quantum computers (powerful computers that leverage principles of quantum physics) threaten to break existing asymmetric algorithms used to encrypt and secure communications in mission-critical infrastructure. In the past 12 months alone, 67% of companies with critical infrastructure have suffered at least one cybersecurity attack.

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As the global electric energy system digitizes, decentralizes and becomes carbon-neutral, it creates new challenges in the protection, control and operation of electric energy systems. To combat rising attacks, increased focus on future-proofing assets is necessary and will require quantum-safe solutions to respond to growing cybersecurity threats.

 2. Weather volatility is the biggest threat to asset intensive industries. Natural disasters are increasingly becoming a key concern for utilities globally. As climate change accelerates, utilities have to plan for a future where such events cause little to no disruption of service and with the safeguards to protect both assets and people. As a result, digitalized power distribution grids including digital substations and secondary distribution automation and wired and wireless mission critical communication networks to ensure always-on connectivity, play a very important role in the future plans of utilities.

In addition, the digitalization of power networks will also allow electricity grids to be monitored and managed remotely, thereby ensuring minimal outage time and enhanced efficiency and safety of personnel.

3. Setting the stage for smart cities. To create a carbon-neutral future, cities of the future will require an electricity backbone that supports new residential or commercial use cases such as electrified transit systems and has the ability to navigate grid complexities brought on by renewable energies as well as weather volatility. From generation and transmission, all the way to distribution as part of utility or industrial power networks including railways and airports, advanced protection, control, automation and communications systems that improve the reliability and efficiency of electricity networks will be a must have in 2021.

The year is still young and full of opportunity. For utility leaders that are looking to maintain the right balance between reinventing their operations, growth and customer satisfaction, it will be key to keep in mind how internal and external threats could impact operations while considering how to prevent disruption. 

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Thank Claus for the Post!
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Robert Brook's picture
Robert Brook on Feb 12, 2021

Hi Claus…question for you. Do you think the massive expansion of new energy generators (for example all the solar customers that utilities are now required to treat as generator/consumers) has contributed to the increase in cyber-attacks? Just wondering if they provided a new, easily accessed touchpoint for villains.  

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