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As SolarWinds takes the headlines, DOE secretary issues new order against China to protect U.S. power supply in digital age

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Christopher Neely's picture
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Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

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  • Dec 22, 2020
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The country will be trying to figure out the size and scope of damage inflicted by the SolarWinds hack for the next several months, if not longer. It was the largest and most sophisticated cyberattack seen by the U.S. from a foreign adversary and has forced major corporations and government agencies to recoil, reassess and address their cybersecurity. 

SolarWinds will, hopefully, remain at the forefront of cybersecurity conversations for the foreseeable future—that's what happens when your vulnerabilities are seized upon. While think pieces and analyses are focused on Russia and the Kremlin's involvement in the SolarWinds attack, another major cybersecurity news item seems to have slipped by. 

With one eye on Russia, the U.S. government showed they're still watching China. On Dec. 17, U.S. DOE Secretary Dan Brouillette officially issued a prohibition order against sourcing certain bulk power supply equipment from the People's Republic China, claiming sourcing such equipment could pose "an undue risk to the BPS, the security or resilience of critical infrastructure, the economy, national security, or safety and security of Americans."

This follows the May 1 order from President Donald Trump that gave explicit authority to the DOE Secretary to take such actions to protect the country's bulk power supply from foreign adversaries. The move was lauded and grieved, as companies worried how it would disrupt the supply chain, especially if such a prohibition were enacted on China, a go-to source for many U.S. companies looking for better deals on equipment. 

From the DOE's press release on Dec. 17:

Brouillette's order "prohibits utilities that supply critical defense facilities at a service voltage of 69kV or above from acquiring, importing, transferring, or installing BPS electric equipment, and is specific to select equipment manufactured or supplied by persons owned by, controlled by, or subject to the jurisdiction or direction of the People’s Republic of China." The prohibition goes into effect on Jan. 16. 

This all comes down to cybersecurity and the U.S. acknowledging its own vulnerabilities and China's abilities to potentially cause harm to the U.S. systems. We are embarking on a decade that, likely, will result in exponentially greater digitization across sectors. With SolarWinds at the forefront and this is in the background, it's clear that we are also embarking on a tense decade between adversaries on the digital stage. Electric utilities and countries' power supply will remain a huge target. It's going to take private and government coordination in order to avoid disaster. 

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