Amid Rising Energy Cyberattacks, Coal is our Insurance Policy

Author: Rich Nolan
Coal protects from energy infrastructure cyberattacks

Cyberattacks are of increasing concern, with cyber criminals and state actors carefully selecting vulnerable targets to maximize disruption. Increasingly, these hacking events target physical infrastructure, aiming to cut access to U.S. energy sources and utilities. There’s no doubt that attacks on energy infrastructure will continue, impacting U.S. communities, the economy and our nation’s security. Fortunately, a diverse energy portfolio—one that includes coal—can reduce that risk. Coal is the insurance policy the U.S. grid needs, providing storable, dispatchable fuel diversity and security for our nation.

What’s happening with cyberattacks in the U.S.?

Many cyberattacks use ransomware. This type of malware allows hackers to access computer systems and disrupt or lock them until they get what they want. And because ransomware can be deployed by simply clicking an emailed link, it leaves companies and government entities more vulnerable than ever. The Justice Department called 2020 “the worst year ever when it comes to ransomware and related extortion.

What’s more, the first half of 2021 has seen a 102 percent increase in ransomware attacks compared to the beginning of 2020. “More than $350 million in losses are attributable to ransomware attacks this year. That’s a more than 300 percent increase over last year’s victimization of companies,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a press briefing.

Notably, in May 2021, Colonial Pipeline was hacked, halting 5,500 miles of pipeline service from one of the nation’s largest pipelines, which runs from New Jersey to Texas and provides gasoline and jet fuel to 45 percent of the East Coast. The result: widespread gasoline shortages and price spikes. The attack demonstrated the threat to physical infrastructure, as well as the ensuing economic impact cyberattacks cause.

Why is energy infrastructure vulnerable to cyberattacks?

Energy infrastructure and utilities are among the most targeted sectors for cyberattacks. Utilities provide critically important energy to the U.S., often relying on outdated technology to do so. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) lists energy as one of 16 different critical infrastructure sectors that, if compromised, could have a “debilitating effect” on the nation’s economy and security.

For cyberattacks, greater disruption equals a greater likelihood that companies will pay to alleviate it. A loss of power brings much of our everyday lives to a halt. It is critical to have a resilient energy system with backstops in place to provide a reliable, substantial source of energy capable of filling gaps when needed.

Coal provides fuel diversity and security against cyberattacks

Every energy source could be vulnerable to an attack, but there are advantages to fuel sources that can be stored on-site at power plants. Renewable energy sources are not storable at grid scale, and natural gas must be moved through pipelines to power plants. Coal, however, doesn’t rely on “just-in-time” delivery. It can be stored in mass amounts for months of fuel use and dispatched when other sources of energy are in limited supply. Americans can rely on coal.

Policymakers must prioritize the U.S. coal fleet

In April 2021, the Department of Justice created a ransomware task force to help address the country’s growing cybersecurity issues. Additionally, President Biden signed an executive order requiring government contractors to improve their cybersecurity practices as an initial step toward strengthening the security of the country’s basic functions. It’s clear that the Biden administration is taking cybersecurity seriously and taking steps to protect the country’s critical infrastructure, but protecting America from ransomware attacks will involve a comprehensive approach.

Policymakers must go further than upgrading security systems. They must demand that the country prioritizes the U.S. coal fleet to serve as an insurance policy for the nation to protect our security, our economy and our communities. The United States needs a responsible, no-regrets energy mix and coal offers the fuel security, reliability and resilience needed to make that happen.