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Energy security needs a secure IoT


The way we generate, store and distribute energy is being transformed to bolster energy security and transition away from fossil fuels towards renewables. Cellular IoT will play an increasingly important role in this by connecting devices and solutions in support of these goals. However, cybersecurity will be of paramount importance in the design and implementation of these solutions to protect sensitive data exchange within critical national energy infrastructure, says Iain Davidson, senior product manager, Wireless Logic.

What is energy security?

Most people probably didn’t think about energy security until the energy price rises that have contributed to the cost-of-living crisis.

Since 2021, energy supply and demand has been out of balance. During the pandemic, fuel consumption dropped people weren’t travelling, manufacturing wasn’t at its normal level and so forth. This drop-off in demand triggered a slowing down in fuel production.

When restrictions eased, demand shot up and supply had to rush to catch up. The result was price rises. Then the war in Ukraine began, triggering an international dilemma around the purchasing of Russian gas, particularly for countries heavily dependent on it for their energy supply.

This ‘perfect storm’ of energy problems highlighted the long-standing issue of energy security. Energy security is the ability to supply energy to demand at a cost that can be met. While there are differing definitions, and a range of issues tied up in the debate, the International Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy security as, “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price.”

How secure a nation’s energy supply is has a connection, of course, with how reliant that nation is on others for its energy. A dependence on imports means susceptibility to potentially volatile market prices. Self-sufficiency and energy independence, on the other hand, implies a more secure, reliable energy supply.

Strategies for such ‘home-grown’ energy hinge on renewables, inherently more secure because they are renewable and not based around fossil fuels which are not readily available for many nations, and which have an unsustainable climate impact. Indeed, the UK government refers to energy security and net zero as, “two sides of the same coin.”

Clearly the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s ‘final warning’ on climate change call for long term energy security strategies.

The road to energy security

The World Energy Council tracks national energy systems through the World Energy Trilemma Index. This seeks to provide insights into countries’ performance in meeting energy demands equitably and maintaining balance as the world transitions to decarbonised systems.

The Index’s three measures include energy security, which it describes as a nation’s ability to meet existing and future demands reliably, and cope with any ‘shocks’ to the system with only minimal supply disruption.

It also assesses how effectively both domestic and external energy sources are managed, along with the reliability and resilience of energy infrastructure. This speaks to another critical dimension of energy security, that the systems in place to generate, store and distribute energy work well and meet the need.

In the 2022 index, the UK ranked joint fourth (with Canada) overall behind Sweden, Switzerland/Denmark (joint second) and Finland. However, on energy security it ranked 10th. The report notably stresses the importance of viewing the three dimensions (the other two being energy equity and environmental sustainability) in concert.

On 30 March ‘Energy Security Day’ the UK government published its new strategy for the future of energy. Through these plans, it hopes to boost the country’s energy security and independence, reduce household bills for the long term, and maintain a position in achieving net zero.

Smarter systems and infrastructure that generate, store and distribute energy efficiently will help boost energy security and the drive towards renewable energy sources. Indeed, the UK government recently announced funding for projects developing technologies to capture and store energy for longer, noting that this plays an essential role in, “powering more of Britain from Britain” to increase energy security.

The role of a secure IoT in transformed energy systems

The IoT has a central role to play as governments and industries work to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, establish new forms of energy generation and implement sufficient means of storing, managing and distributing energy. Wind turbines, solar farms, hydro power plants, energy distribution capabilities, battery storage and even electric vehicle adoption will all form part of energy’s transformation.

IoT connected devices and systems can contribute carbon tracking and smart-meter energy monitoring; they can enable data exchange for microgrids and support mechanisms for selling energy directly back into the network.

These solutions will transmit data so that energy companies can monitor devices and conditions, control devices in remote locations, track performance to predict maintenance cycles and act on alerts. They will be able to monitor energy consumption for smart metering through connected meters and sensors for load balancing on the grid.

In this way, connectivity is part of the intelligent, efficient, renewable energy model, however it must be cybersecure. As new and additional devices are deployed, they could present more pathways for potential cyberattacks. That is a significant risk and safeguards are therefore needed to protect against unauthorised access to devices, networks, management platforms and cloud infrastructure. Any weaknesses in any of these is a security problem.

Given this, and the ever-present threat of cyberattacks, connectivity providers play a fundamental role in securing the connections of energy infrastructure. They must authenticate device identities and connect to grid infrastructure, IT systems and cloud destinations securely.

Cellular IoT connectivity solutions can offer flexible, reliable and scalable connectivity to meet the demand of diversified, distributed energy provided they are designed to defend against, detect and react to cyber threats.

In a cellular IoT context, security begins with the SIM, as the root of trust to authenticate devices using ‘IoT Safe’, and extends to secure two-way communication and data through, for example secure private access point names (APNs) and encrypted virtual private networks. Security AI and automation are likely to feature heavily with capabilities such as automated anomaly detection to identify and isolate security breaches should they occur.

Clearly, secure IoT for energy infrastructure must draw heavily on technology capabilities and standards but it isn’t just about features. Best practices play just as important a role because people and processes, and not only those of the IoT solution provider but of their suppliers too, are critical to overall security. Companies cannot neglect cybersecurity training for staff doing so carries significant risk, as any company that has fallen victim to a phishing attack will know.

Smart connectivity has an important role to play as systems, infrastructure and fuel choices are transformed to boost energy security. The IoT will connect increasingly large numbers of devices and solutions to exchange data and must do so securely. Enterprises in the energy sector need to adopt a 360-degree approach to cybersecurity in terms of procurement, deployment and management of devices and processes. This will allow them to defend, detect and react to constantly evolving cyber threats for a more secure smart grid in support of infrastructure designed for energy security.

The author is Iain Davidson, senior product manager, Wireless Logic.

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