Energy networks must forge ahead with investment

cyber security

By Kevin Nesdale, General Manager of Power Distribution, Eaton ANZ

In just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled nations across the world, putting pressure on many critical industries including the energy sector. 

With strict travel restrictions currently in place, and physical distancing becoming a new norm across Australia – electricity network companies have been rapidly adjusting maintenance and operational models to reduce risk to employees and contractors, and ensure reliable power for essential services such as hospitals, schools and medical facilities.

Some projects have been delayed due to new Work Health Safety (WHS) distancing requirements, with utilities building these learnings into all future planning.

While the Australian energy sector is in a better position than many other nations, there are fresh concerns amongst energy business leaders and technical teams about emergency readiness, technology investment and cybersecurity during the public health and economic crisis.  

There are promising signs that Australia is controlling the spread of COVID-19, however with uncertainty still high across the nation, utilities need to tackle challenges head on – from reassessing emergency response plans, to implementing more strategic approaches for technology investment and keeping cybersecurity top of mind.

Reassessing emergency response plans 

One of the biggest threats for electricity networks during the global pandemic, is the inability for international and local technical experts to travel. Utilities often rely on specialists located in other geographies to fly in and provide onsite assistance during an electrical emergency or during planned maintenance projects.

Many Australian states and territories have closed their borders, while international travel is increasingly less viable with mandatory 14-day quarantine periods and limited flights.

With restricted access to technical experts, operations teams need to review emergency response and maintenance plans to identify vulnerabilities and put in place alternate support options if required. It is important to avoid any delays in maintenance that will increase the risk of unnecessary downtime and power outages. 

It is a good time to look at upskilling local engineers and technicians. Already some power management suppliers are developing online training to train customer teams to deliver planned maintenance and support. The energy sector could also benefit from the use of virtual reality or augmented reality which could be used to remotely connect technical specialists, therefore streamlining maintenance and repairs.

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Investing strategically in automation

While it is unlikely that investment plans will change much in the short-term, utilities need to be strategic about which substation control system equipment to upgrade or retrofit in the future.

In Australia, many utilities commenced upgrade programs around 10 years ago, however there is still a significant fleet of control system equipment that is approaching their end of life or becoming obsolete. But there are limitations to the amount you can retrofit. The challenge with old equipment is that if the gear fails, it will be difficult to source spare parts to keep the substations running – along with the current logistical challenges, especially air freight delays.

Therefore, investment must continue despite the tough economic outlook.  Contemporary control and automation substation equipment must be a key part of all strategic decisions. This is critical to modernise the electricity grid and enhancing remote capabilities across the electricity network in a safe and secure manner.

Companies that have already invested in automation and intelligent devices will be reaping the benefits in this current climate – being able to take advantage of the ability to remotely monitor and control substations, remotely extract information from the substation and use this data to drive better decision making and efficiencies across electrical infrastructure.

Having and maintaining the program of upgrading will reduce the overall number of equipment breakdowns allowing resources to focus on other areas, minimizing OHS issues in distancing, driving and accessing sites.

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Keeping cybersecurity top of mind

For utilities, cybersecurity is now a fundamental business requirement that is being treated with the same importance as quality and safety when meeting business objectives.

Now more than ever, utilities need to work with equipment suppliers to ensure all intelligent electronic devices installed on electric grids and microgrid applications, meet industry cybersecurity standards.

Strategies need to develop “depth in defense”, integrate technology, people and operational capabilities to establish different types of cybersecurity barriers across multiple layers of an organisation.

From an equipment supplier’s perspective, utilities should ensure that equipment purchased has cybersecurity principles included from the initial design phase and not implemented as a bolt on response.  Some suppliers today have Centres of Excellence where all equipment is reviewed by an independent group to test the cyber security implementation.

Forging ahead

While this crisis represents a moment in time, the effects will be long-lasting in Australia – changing the way we work and live, and influencing national economic and policy framework for many years to come.   

The energy sector can withstand this challenging period but will need to forge ahead with investment and increase remote capabilities – staying focused on building a more reliable, efficient and affordable electricity network for the future.