Called the'largest interconnected machine,' the US electricity grid is a complex digital and physical system crucial to life and commerce in this country. Today, it is made up of more than 7,000 power plants, 55,000 substations, 160,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and millions of miles of low-voltage distribution lines. This web of generators, substations and power lines is organized into three major interconnections, operated by 66 balancing authorities and 3,000 different utilities. As the grid has become more dependent on computers and data-sharing, it has become more responsive to changes in power demand and better at integrating new sources of energy. But its computerized control could be abused by attackers who get into the systems.
Just after 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 23, 2015, a freezing day in Western Ukraine, an unknown hacker logged in to the Ivano-Frankivsk's computerized electrical grid control center and, in a few seconds, abruptly shut down all electricity to the area's 225,000 residents. The effects were immediate and far reaching. As night fell, the area plunged into darkness -- no lights, no heat. It was a complete blackout. After about six chaotic hours, electrical workers in the area were finally able to restore power to the region.
Earlier this year, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the richest man on Earth, wrote an essay online at "The blog of Bill Gates," to college students graduating worldwide in 2017. One is artificial intelligence (AI). We have only begun to tap into all the ways it will make people's lives more productive and creative. The second is energy, because making it clean, affordable, and reliable will be essential for fighting poverty and climate change." The third field he mentioned was biosciences.
Utilities are significantly increasing data gathering and using external data sets for smarter capacity and investment planning. Everything from weather data to 3D modeling of networks and extraction sites is being gathered, combined with internal and historical data sets and used to inform, predict and plan a variety of business outcomes. While not cheap to obtain, data is being used to make informed decisions on everything from when to shut down power stations to avoid over-capacity in the market, to where to drill and how to manage fluctuating water supplies. For example, moves in several markets to deploy smart meters, capable of feeding back consumption data in near real time, provide a valuable data resource for energy companies. This flow of information--which can update as frequently as every 30 seconds--provides valuable insight into real-world energy consumption and can provide early warning of peaks in demand.
Rising energy demands, fluctuating oil prices, renewable integration, aging infrastructure and changing regulatory requirements are all challenges facing the energy industry today. While multiple approaches exist for addressing these realities, one constant remains -- technology will be at the heart of the majority of solutions. Whether it's sensors and cameras monitoring utility and oil and gas assets, drones that perform high-risk inspection operations, or machine learning tools that identify energy efficiency opportunities, technology innovation is critical for the future of the industry. The shift to smart electricity grids and digital oil fields does not come without risk. The technologies proliferating in the energy industry are also endangering it -- opening up critical systems to cyberattacks.