German government on IT security of energy system


At the beginning of August 2020, the German government received a so-called “Kleine Anfrage” (minor enquiry) from an opposition faction on the state of IT security of energy supply. In accordance with German parliamentary practice, such minor enquiries are answered in writing and in public by the Federal Government. The recently published written reply of 16 pages is of interest not only to German TSOs but also to European colleagues, as it covers national levels as well as the entire European interconnected grid.

Ultimately, the issue is the probability of a supra-regional blackout (not only for electricity, but for the entire energy supply). Does the progressing digitisation and automation result in an increased likelihood of energy supply failures? The attack surface of suppliers and grid operators surely has been expanded and the critical components of the digital energy system may be considered targets of cybercriminals or foreign states. In other words, the government had to deal with scenarios like in Marc Elsberg’s novel “Blackout”, which is supposed to be immensely popular in TSO circles (some will remember that the bestselling author was also one of the speakers at ElSeC 2017).

To start with, the Federal Government’s assessment is reassuring. Its statement is based on statistics for 2018 and 2019 from the German Federal Office for Information Security (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik). According to these statistics, external parties were able to penetrate the IT networks of German suppliers three times in 2018. In 2019, suppliers were the target of unauthorised access twice. None of the reported attacks led to interruptions in the energy supply. The government attributes this partly to the certified Smart Meter Gateway, a communication unit with integrated security module which is used to secure critical infrastructures – and successively also in the areas relevant to the energy transition.

According to the Federal Government, long-lasting supra-regional power failures are extremely rare. Regarding the national or the entire European interconnected grid, it has never been at risk and it is assumed that blackouts are extremely unlikely. However, a concrete probability cannot be stated. But even in the very unlikely event of a blackout, at least nationwide, the grid operators would ensure a rapid return of electricity supply through their grid restoration strategies. For this purpose, special power plants are kept in reserve which can start up without any external supply of electrical energy and which can reactivate power grids.

The German Federal Government has commented on the state of IT security of energy supply (illustration using a picture from ENTSO-E)

> Open Reply of the Federal Government, in German (pdf, 321.7kB)

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Autonomous drones for digital line maintenance


The supra-regional Austrian transmission grid is about 3,500km long. This critical infrastructure must be constantly monitored, which can be very demanding, as power lines often run in impassable terrain. In the future, digital solutions will not only determine the control of the entire power system, but also have the potential to facilitate the continuous monitoring of supply lines. This is why the Austrian TSCNET shareholder APG is one of the first transmission system operators (TSOs) in Europe to test autonomous flying drones.

“Operating a power grid is a high-tech business today,” comments Gerhard Christiner, CTO at APG, and continues that the TSO is always searching for technological innovations to continuously improve system safety. Paul Zachoval and Rainer Wagenhofer, project managers for APG’s drone project, explain: “In order to check the APG network for possible damage, our colleagues in the line maintenance team cover a distance every year whose length corresponds to the distance from Vienna to Beijing. The possibilities offered by autonomous flying drones to support this inspection work are enormous.”

After almost six years of development, expectations are high. Some damage to power lines can only be seen from the air and the drones can provide information about current damage even in bad weather and poor visibility. Drones allow shorter inspection intervals and can thus improve security of supply. And finally, they also contribute to the safety of employees, as in many cases it will no longer be necessary to climb the pylons. APG’s recent tests are conducted in cooperation with the Lower Austrian company SmartDigital Concepts (SDC). The SDC flight devices are high-tech drones developed specifically for the requirements of TSOs among others. They are equipped with specialised measuring devices and cameras for the maintenance of infrastructure systems.

APG ist testing autonomous drones for digital line maintenance (picture: screenshot taken from demonstration video)

> See APG press release, in German (html)
> Watch APG demonstration video “Fliegende Helfer”, in German (YouTube)

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DEFENDER workshop hosted by Eles


The European project DEFENDER for the protection of Critical Energy Infrastructures (CEI) comprises 18 partners from the entire spectrum of the energy industry as well as research institutions, public authorities, consulting companies, engineering offices, or software developers. The consortium’s only transmission system operator (TSO) is TSCNET shareholder ELES from Slovenia. On 18 September, Eles hosted a DEFENDER workshop in which experts from the Jožef Stefan Institute, Slovenia’s largest research institution, the Institute of Corporate Security Studies (ICS) Ljubljana, and the German RWTH Aachen University discussed possible threats to transmission and communication systems.

Representatives of the RWTH introduced their tools and methods for emergency response. Part of the presentation was the CPSS Co-Simulator, the main purpose of which is to analyse cyber, physical and human impacts and threats on the critical energy infrastructure, identify the most likely attack on the vulnerable parts of the network, and the possible consequences of such an attack. Eles in turn presented the topology of its transmission and telecommunications network. In the second phase of the DEFENDER project, the RWTH experts are expected to provide concrete analyses of critical points in the Slovenian TSO network that could pose serious risks to the overall system.

ELES hosted a DEFENDER project workshop on threats to and defence of transmission and communication systems (picture: ELES)

> See ELES press release (html)
> Visit DEFENDER website (html)

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Responses to cyber-physical network threats


The European project DEFENDER on critical energy infrastructure (CEI) protection brings together 18 partners covering the entire spectrum of the energy sector, as well as research institutions, authorities, consultancies, engineering companies or software developers. DEFENDER’s strategic challenge is to protect the existing CEI and to design a new generation of a more resilient and self-healing infrastructure capable of surviving severe accidents and attacks, be they physical or cyber-based. The project is mainly funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme.

The sole transmission system operator (TSO) of the consortium is TSCNET shareholder ELES from Slovenia, who has just announced that DEFENDER is fully on schedule. Currently, ELES and its partners are preparing the scenarios for the pilot projects that focus on the early detection and prediction of existing hazards. These are mainly caused by network intrusion. The subsequent phase of the project is dedicated to the DEFENDER Security Framework for appropriate management of various types of security threats.

> See ELES press release (html)
> Visit DEFENDER website (html, with access to workshop registration)

Picture: Screenshot of video “Flying Hunter” showing a conceptual hunting drone prototype (DFSL – Smart Security Systems, YouTube)

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Counter-terrorism exercise at ČEPS


Thankfully it was only a joint drill by the Prague Regional Police Directorate and the Czech transmission system operator (TSO) and TSC member ČEPS: On 28 November, terrorists were attacking the ČEPS head office in the Bohdalec district in Prague, disarming security guards, taking several employees hostage, and threatening to destroy the transmission network before being overwhelmed by units of the integrated rescue system.

The Czech TSO is glad to cooperate with the authorities. Jan Kalina, Chairman of the ČEPS Board of Directors, considers the reliability of the transmission system under all circumstances as crucial for the Czech and European critical infrastructure. Miloš Trojánek, Director of the Prague Regional Police Directorate, appraises the realistic exercise as “beneficial experience” and thanked ČEPS for its participation explicitly.

> See ČEPS press release (html)

Illustration based on a ČEPS press picture


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Safety of the Czech grid is put to the test


“Don’t learn safety by accident,” is a well-known saying used by electrical workers. In the course of the Czech military safety program Safeguard, an exercise took succesfully place at the Kletné electrical substation near Ostrava in the eastern Czech region of Moravskoslezský. The substation is operated by the Czech transmission system operator (TSO) and TSC member ČEPS. Safeguard features a series of security exercises to optimise the cooperation of the Czech Army with security-related institutions and corporations such as energy companies.

Jan Kalina, Chairman of the ČEPS Board of Directors, expressed his hope that the critical situation practised on 17 October – with soldiers attacking the substation – will never have to be experienced in reality. Still, ČEPS is “aware that the transmission system is essential for the basic functioning of the country”. Therefore the Czech TSO considers the Safeguard program as valuable and is glad to participate.

The supranational significance of the Safeguard exercise was emphasised by the presence of staff members from non-Czech TSOs who witnessed the manoeuvre at Kletné. Among the invited guests were also representatives of the TSC members 50Hertz, one of the four German TSOs, from Denmark, and the Hungarian TSO, MAVIR.

> See ČEPS press release (html)

Picture: ČEPS


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