• Exelon, Eversource, AEP speaking to regulators about response
  • Concerns come as grids are upgraded to digital from analog

Exelon Corp. and other major U.S. power producers are in discussions with regulators and stakeholders on a detailed plan for preventing and responding to cyberattacks designed to disrupt the country’s electric system.

Unresolved questions in the talks include who is in charge and would substations that are hit be considered a crime scene, said Exelon Chief Executive Officer Christopher Crane during a Thursday panel discussion at IHS CERAWeek in Houston.

"Think about the civil unrest in Philadelphia and Baltimore and some of the communities we serve if you have multiple days of power not flowing," Crane said.

The debate comes as U.S. power grids are upgraded from an analog to a digital system, raising the potential that the systems that manage the flow of electricity to millions of Americans could be shut down by a cyberattack. Among the challenges are differences in security requirements across the country and the world, how the grids share power in times of high demand and the massive task of bringing together industry, government and the technology community to find solutions.

To be sure, cybersecurity is listed among the top risks in many power companies’ regulatory filings, Eversource Energy CEO Thomas May said in the same panel discussion. Any changes to the grid will have to be made in the context of physical and cybersecurity issues together, Nick Akins, CEO of American Electric Power Co. said.

Adding wind farms, solar panels and smart meters to the power distribution system opens additional portals through which hackers can attack the grids, according to computer security experts advising governments and utilities.

Where traditionally the grid took power from a few sources, it’s now absorbing it from thousands. That realization came in 2014, just as the hackers known as “Dragonfly” and “Energetic Bear” gained access to power networks across the U.S. and Europe, in a reminder of how vulnerable the system has become.

"We’re all in this together," Eversource’s May said.

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