(FILES) Photo dated 27 October 2006 show

Cyber security, upgrading aging power infrastructure and integrating more renewables into the US energy portfolio are all high on Washington’s agenda and pressing issues for utilities, but addressing these concerns simultaneously is a major challenge

Modernizing and protecting the often archaic US power grid is a massive – and expensive – undertaking, but if legacy assets can be integrated with new state-of-the-art infrastructure, then safety, reliability and regulatory compliance can be strengthened and improved.

The utility industry is using aging equipment, but with the proliferation of hand-held devices like smart phones and tablets all clamoring for power outlets and bandwidth, utilities often struggle to keep up reliability and maintain security, Cisco’s Manger of Smart Grid Marketing Jenny Gomez told Breaking Energy on a recent briefing call.

“Utilities have traditionally been very siloed in their thinking, but they could find efficiencies by working together,” said Gomez. Utility companies are used to products designed for specific segments like generation, transmission or distribution – Cisco is trying to offer solutions that encompass the entire value chain, she explained.

One challenge utilities face is how to integrate rapidly increasing distributed generation sources – as commercial and residential solar installations proliferate and more wind farms are built – while maintaining security and visibility over their growing networks. Technology is a double-edged sword in this regard because as utilities become more automated – with smart meters and remote sensing applications – they open themselves up to more attack vulnerabilities, Cisco engineers told Breaking Energy.

With cyber security threats becoming a greater concern, the White House is pushing for increased grid security by rolling out new regulations, but regulatory infractions can cost companies up to $1 million dollars a day, said Bradley Tips, Senior Product Marketing Manager, so there is a strong financial component associated with maintaining regulatory compliance.

Pricing for these solutions and services varies widely depending on the configuration selected and specific result being sought, Tips told Breaking Energy in an email. Individual components like the ASR-903 used for grid communications start in price at around $10,000, whereas CGS 1000 compact switches start around $800 each and the cost to roll this technology out across a portion of a utility’s network will depend on how many units are required and other factors.

“We are starting to see real concern from utility customers now that the source code from STUXNET is out, customers have seen variations on that [security threat] like FLAME,” said Senior Solution Architect Vikram Varakantam. “We are working with a major utility to integrate their legacy systems,” he said. Computers at Saudi Aramco were also recently compromised by a cyber attack.

“Visibility and control of the network is the goal – utilities want to see pole tops, substations, etc. – and see who is entering the network, where and why,” said Tips.