Americans are a panicky bunch, and the latest thing to set them off is the Colonial pipeline hack. Reports of the possibility of gas shortages have sent people streaming to gas stations, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, and maybe even filling bags with gas. (????) All this hoarding has created actual gas shortages.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm likened it to “hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic.” And lo and behold, the Colonial pipeline was back online by Wednesday evening, bringing an end to this semi-national nightmare. In many ways, the crash and hoarding episode represents the failings of our current transportation system—and provides a warning for how not to repeat them as we transition to an electrified future.
To recap in case you have not yet witnessed Mad Max-style behavior at the pump: The pipeline responsible for transporting 45% of gas on the Eastern Seaboard was shut down after Colonial suffered a ransomware attack. As the pipeline struggled to come back online, gas providers raced to have enough gas to meet demand, and the government loosened transit by freight restrictions in response. That has not stopped conservatives from blaming Democrats for a cybersecurity failing that was decades in the making or people, generally, from freaking out. The emergent concern about gas shortages led to hashtags that Twitter’s algorithm promoted, and voila, freakout-buying commenced.
While it’s tempting to use this as an argument against fossil fuels, the reality is that anything connected to the internet is prone to be hacked and exploited. (And don’t worry, there are plenty of good reasons to end our reliance on fossil fuels.) We’ve seen this time and time and time and... well, you get the point. Instead, what the Colonial pipeline hack shows is the need for redundant and resilient systems as we electrify the future.
In fact, the electrification of transportation, both personal and public, makes it all the more important. Watching people scramble for gas reminded me of one of the reasons people are loathed to adopt electric vehicles: range anxiety. A study released earlier this year found people who took the electric vehicle plunge actually put fewer miles on their vehicles. While the researchers didn’t answer why that is, they speculated range anxiety—the fear of running out of juice mid-trip—could be one of the reasons. The White House has put forward a plan to install 500,000 charging stations “in apartment buildings, in public parking, [and] throughout communities” around the U.S., a move that would (in theory) reduce range anxiety.
But building out a charging network will require even more of a focus on cybersecurity than pipelines. The energy sector is already the third-most targeted industry when it comes to cyberattacks, according to an IBM report from February. Charging infrastructure could make matters even more dangerous because it links up two vital systems: transit and electricity. And a handful of analyses have found that breaking through charging infrastructure’s cyber defenses could do widespread damage to the grid by allowing hackers to manipulate electricity flows. Hackers have already had a go at this, most infamously crippling Ukraine’s power grid in 2016, and charging infrastructure could offer more points of entry and attack options.
“You do reach a tipping point where you’ve got so much load on the grid provided by these chargers, that if you could control it and manipulate them in aggregate, you would start to see power system problems,” Jay Johnson, principal member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, told E&E News last year.
An analysis of New York’s grid found that there currently aren’t enough electric vehicles for a hack to damage. But as electric vehicle adoption becomes more widespread, hackers could use them and charging stations to attack the grid and cause a blackout, according to the report. The climate of lax pipeline cybersecurity is certainly a wake-up call of what awaits electric vehicle charging infrastructure (and in the case of electric vehicles, what is already happening).
The International Energy Agency put out a report in October 2020 warning of the risks to electric infrastructure as cars and more smart devices get integrated. Among its recommendations are utilities ramping up cybersecurity as well as the need for government agencies dealing with not just energy but transportation and consumer protection to work together to shore up systems to cyberattacks and plan coordinated responses. That stands in stark contrast to the mess that is our current approach to fossil fuel infrastructure, which includes outdated regulations, poor funding, and a lack of expertise.
Yet hacking isn’t the only thing charging infrastructure will have to protect against when it comes to the risk of shortages. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy led to a fuel shortage in the New York metro area. Of course, Sandy also knocked out power to all of lower Manhattan for days, which is exactly what to expect with a hurricane. The National Hurricane Center’s definition of a Category 2 storm includes the warning that “near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.” Other categories of storms are worse, with the risk of the power being out for months once you get into Category 4 territory. Those on the West Coast aren’t out of the woods either. Consider how PG&E cut power for millions of customers in California during periods of high wildfire weather risk in recent years. Midwest? Look at last year’s derecho. the South? I’m looking at you, Texas.
You get my drift. Charging infrastructure that relies solely on a regular ol’ power grid to function is just as vulnerable as gas stations are to extreme weather, if not more so in some cases. And the last thing you want when a fire sparks while the power is out is your electric getaway vehicle’s battery at 10%.
The need for distributed power like rooftop solar and microgrids that serve communities is vital to ensure electric vehicles and electrified public transit can continue to run. There’s also a flip that fully charged electric vehicles can essentially function as batteries and provide power and warmth during blackouts, as was the case for some Texans in February.
If the current cascading damage done by the hack and hoard spree show us anything, it’s that we need to be planning for a different future now. Because frankly, a future where people are duking it out over the last bit of juice at the local charging station is only a slightly cleaner hellhole than our current one. And I, for one, think we deserve a bit better.