Protecting the U.S. energy grid from cyberattack requires the migration to cutting-edge technological tools such as dark fiber and quantum computing, according to experts who spoke at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee hearing on Thursday.

According to Richard Raines, director of the Electrical and Electronics Systems Research Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, darknet systems rely on unused fiber optic cables to keep the communications of a particular electronic system off the public internet.

“Darknet is not just about moving the grid’s command and control functions off the public internet unused fiber that we have, but it’s about creating and leveraging a holistic toolkit of capabilities to make it harder for an adversary to exploit out systems,” said Raines, explaining that the grid could take advantage of existing but unused fiber to establish a darknet. “Working with our private and public partners, we envision darknet as a highly secure, resilient, and redundant communications sensing and technical assistance solution supporting all elements of the electric enterprise and its supply chain.”

Quantum computing relies on the laws of quantum mechanics, in which particles take on more than one state at a time and interact with other far away particles, to process information.

“Quantum technology uses the laws of quantum physics to generate keys that cannot be cracked. The keys are transmitted as light to optical fibers on devices in the field,” said Duncan Earl, president and chief technology officer at Qubitekk, Inc. “Quantum technology enables communications that cannot be intercepted or altered. Any attempt to do so can be immediately attempted and thwarted.”

According to Earl, both quantum computing and darknet could be implemented at the same time to protect electric grid systems, but widespread adoption of these technologies will require government investment.

“It is a question of funding. The CEDS [Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems] program within [the Department of Energy] is doing a great job, but they don’t really have a large enough budget to take on darknet yet. From my perspective, I think that increasing the funding to that program is an excellent thing to do right away,” said Earl.

“So one thing we could do is we could immediately appropriate the dollars to immediately begin putting in a darknet for everybody who’s connected to the grid,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

However, both Earl and Raines warned that, though tests of these technologies are already taking place on smaller electric grids, it could be five to 10 years before they would be fully mature.

“To speed the adoption of this technology though will require government action,” said Earl, adding that China, the EU, Australia and Canada are already experimenting with quantum computing technology. “We’re probably fourth or fifth on that list.”

“I do believe that the Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security and others are taking leadership within the bounds of what we are able to accomplish, what we understand that we should do,” said Zachary Tudor, associate laboratory director for national and homeland security at the Idaho National Laboratory. “But I also think that leadership understands that we can do more.”

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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