By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The threat of cyberattacks on the U.S. power grid should be dealt with by a single federal agency, not the welter of groups now charged with the electric system's security, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported on Monday.
While acknowledging there is no absolute insurance against such attacks, the MIT researchers said a single U.S. agency would be better able to address the problem than the disparate federal, state and local entities responsible for various aspects of safeguarding the power grid.
In a report on the future of the U.S. electric grid through 2030, the team recommended that the federal agency should work with industry and have the appropriate regulatory authority to enhance cybersecurity preparedness, response and recovery.
They stressed that the electric grid is stable and strong, but action is needed now to prepare for the next two decades.
The Department of Homeland Security now deals with many facets of cyberattack risk, but the panelists stopped short of recommending that this agency be the one to handle the problem. They agreed the agency must have national authority.
"If there is a cyberattack on certain aspects of the grid, that is not going to respect state boundaries," MIT's Jerrold Grochow said at a Washington briefing on the report.
To cope with an expected increase in renewable sources such as wind and solar power, where energy is often generated far from the densely populated areas where it is used, the panel recommended granting more authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to site transmission facilities that cross state lines.
If the United States ever puts a price on climate-warming carbon emissions, that would prompt a shift in the different ways power is generated, but would not change the report's recommendations, said Henry Jacoby, an MIT emeritus professor who was part of the group that crafted the report.
Some of these shifts are under way now, Jacoby said: "Even without a carbon price, we already have a substantial national pressure to do something with renewables and... electrification of the transport sector."
Another member of the study group, William Hogan of Harvard University, said the lack of a U.S. carbon price is one reason there is national pressure for electric vehicles and greater use of renewable energy. "I think internalizing a price for carbon would be very beneficial," he said.
The report's other recommendations include:
- Utilities with advanced metering technology should start the transition to customer prices that reflect the time-varying costs of supplying power, to improve the grid's efficiency and make rates lower.
- The electric power industry should fund research and development in computational tools for bulk power systems, methods for wide-area transmission planning, procedures for responding to cyberattacks and models of consumer response to real-time pricing.
- To improve decision-making, more detailed data about the bulk power system, results from "smart grid" demonstration projects and other measures of utility cost and performance should be compiled and shared.
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; editing by Anthony Boadle)