Electric co-ops work together for better cybersecurity

Did you know that nearly 900 electric cooperatives power 56 percent of our nation’s landscape? Cooperatives own and maintain 42 percent or 2.7 million miles of the electric distribution lines that serve our communities in the U.S. Cooperatives power more than 20 million businesses, homes, schools and farms across 48 states.

Simply put, cooperatives account for roughly half of our nation’s critical electrical infrastructure. Every one of those electric cooperatives are committed to providing safe and reliable electricity. With that comes an enormous responsibility to protect that infrastructure from new and emerging cyberattacks.

In 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine in the wake of a massive power outage caused by a coordinated attack carried out by Nation State Actors. I was invited by a threat intelligence company that played a major role in helping identify and mitigate the risk. One of the issues identified in the aftermath of the attacks in Ukraine was a lack of communication and collaboration between the different utilities involved.

My primary objective was to convey the importance of government-industry partnerships as well as an industry specific knowledge exchange. You see, one of the core cooperative principles is “cooperation among cooperatives.”

While each electric co-op is independent and autonomous, all belong to a collaborative network sewn together by the relationships among cooperatives, and as members of state and national organizations.

Cooperatives work together to maintain a unified voice which contributes to effective communication. A great example is how cooperatives work together at the national level for the advancement of the cooperative community.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy, BlackByte Cyber Security LLC, and Referentia Systems to develop Essence 2.0. Essence 2.0 is a real-time technology platform with anomaly detection and interactive visualizations for operations and analysis.

It provides an Incident Response Management System (IRMS) sharing network that allows for a coordinated response. In simple terms, it is really good at identifying bad guys trying to compromise a network and provides a platform for information sharing among participating cooperatives.

Nation State Actors and Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) are known to exist inside the networks of their targets for several months, if not years, undetected. NRECA states, “Essence 2.0 accelerates our detection and mitigation action from months to seconds. It also provides specificity to enable immediate actions for isolation and defines characterization of the breach for sharing with others to determine if there may be a larger coordinated attack by adversaries.”

While there are many products available that have similar offerings, most of them fall outside the budget constraints of a small, not-for-profit, electric cooperative. Through government and industry partners, NRECA can provide a cost-effective and sustainable solution for all utilities—4 to 5 times less costly than similar technology.

Protecting the security of cooperative networks and grid technology is something that cooperatives take seriously. This is a great example of how cooperatives are persistent in working together to continue to provide safe, reliable power despite the ever-changing digital landscape with technologies used to enhance the electric infrastructure.