Mitigating the Risk of Substation Security with Touchless Monitoring Solutions

Critical infrastructure, such as power generating facilities, high voltage transmission lines, and utility substations present attractive targets for vandals and other malicious actors. Damage or disruption to these facilities can have wide-ranging consequences to customers, businesses, and society and cost utilities in repairs, fines, and other expenses.

Fortunately, advances in substation security technologies are allowing utilities to continuously monitor the health of their high-value assets while simultaneously maintaining physical security and mitigating the risk of damage or other threats.

As the type and severity of threats continue to evolve, utilities need to ensure that even their most remote and difficult to access infrastructure is protected and secure.

The Evolving Substation Security Threats Facing the Utility Industry

Utility infrastructure faces a wide range of threats. The remote nature of many of the facilities, such as substations, makes them difficult to monitor and protect on a continuous basis. And as malicious actors become more sophisticated, it becomes even more important to detect and resolve these potential threats.

Some substation security threats are fairly simple. For example, vandals may break into a substation to cause mischief, while thieves might enter a facility to steal copper or other high-value equipment. Occasionally, a disgruntled employee or other groups may deliberately sabotage or damage equipment to disrupt operations. The vulnerable state of the US power grid though physical and cyber attacks is still the subject of a recent report. These events can cause disruptions and put people at risk of injury or death, but they tend to be small in scale and committed by individuals or small groups.

On the other hand, some security threats have become far more sophisticated. As critical infrastructure that impacts nearly all aspects of our lives, utility substations and equipment are attractive targets for nation-state terrorists, and other malicious actors looking to cause widespread harm.

Finally, natural events such as severe weather, floods, wildfires, or extreme temperatures can damage equipment, and utilities are especially vulnerable to these types of threats. A 2021 report ranked the utility industry as the most at risk from climate hazards, especially as severe weather incidents occur more frequently as a result of climate change.

The impact of blackouts and other disruptions is felt by both customers and the utility. One PWC report showed that security incidents cost utility companies, on average, $1.2 million in financial losses.

Reliable access to electricity is vital to our modern way of life and ensuring the constant flow of power is the primary responsibility of utility companies. Fortunately, next-generation visual and thermal technologies are enhancing substation security and health asset monitoring by allowing utilities to monitor 24/7 remote, high-value assets from a centralized location.

Next Generation Substation Security Solutions – The Role of Touchless Monitoring Systems

In the past, remote utility substations have been unmanned and unmonitored, they have been protected only by a fence and signs that warn of the potential danger to trespassers. In recent years, government regulations have been mandating the installation of more comprehensive physical security measures for critical infrastructure sites. In response, many utilities have installed commercial-grade security systems and cameras that allow sites to be monitored remotely. While these systems offer an improvement, they are often unreliable and unable to withstand the harsh environments that substations and their assets are subjected to and cannot fully deliver on their promises.

As threats evolve and the potential impact of a security breach continues to grow, utilities should turn instead toward a dedicated solution that combines both operational and security capabilities into a single system.

Touchless™ Monitoring systems provide both visual and thermal sensors. Easily deployable and working in harmony, the sensors allow operators to continuously monitor the health of high-value substation assets while also detecting potential security threats.

The Utility Grade solution is built to tolerate harsh weather conditions, withstand electromagnetic & radio frequency interferences and operate on backup DC power from the substation battery if the primary power source fails. Designed for utilities, a Touchless™ Monitoring system also seamlessly integrates with utility SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) and APM (Asset Performance Management) systems on industry standards communication protocols, such as DNP, IEC-61850, and MODBUS.

Finally, commercial-grade security system providers often lack in-depth experience with the utility industry, meaning they are unable to provide the level of support, training, installation, and ongoing service required by utility companies.

Enhancing Substation Security for Increased Reliability

Physical security will continue to play an important role in protecting remote substations. As utilities introduce new technologies to the power grid, a Touchless™ Monitoring system enhances security by providing continuous, 24/7 visual and thermal monitoring of high-value assets. Operators can be notified of a potential threat and take steps to resolve the issue remotely or dispatch a team to the site.

In response to more sophisticated and significant security risks, utilities must protect critical infrastructure and ensure the reliable transmission of electricity to the public. Implementing Utility Grade Touchless™ Monitoring solutions reduce the cost, time, and resources required to maintain security while enhancing operational performance and giving operators a clear view of what is happening at multiple substations from a single, centralized location.

Ali Hamze is Vice President of Sales at Systems with Intelligence.