The PROTECT Act would create a federal grant program to help small utility companies improve their digital defenses.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday advanced legislation that would devote hundreds of millions of dollars to securing the nation’s power grid.
The Protecting Resources on the Electric Grid with Cybersecurity Technology, or PROTECT, Act, would create a federal grant program to help small utilities companies strengthen the cyber protections on their infrastructure and more actively participate in information sharing efforts. Spearheaded by the Energy Department, the program would also offer participants technical assistance in detecting, responding to and recovering from cyberattacks.
The bill would provide $250 million to fund the program from 2020 to 2024.
It would also stand up a commission to study and recommend strategies to incentivize public utilities to invest in cybersecurity and enter information sharing agreements. The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Joe Manchin, D-W.V., James Risch, R-Idaho, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Angus King, I-Maine, passed the committee by voice vote.
“Our electric grid is increasingly exposed to potentially devastating cyber and physical attacks,” Manchin said during the markup. “The PROTECT Act would create key incentives to expand utilization of advanced cybersecurity tools amongst our power generators to increase our security posture.”
The legislation comes amid growing concern that foreign adversaries could disrupt the nation’s energy infrastructure through a cyberattack.
Security experts often frame such cyberattacks on the electric grid as a worst case scenario in digital warfare, one that would likely lead to conflict in the physical world. Though cyber adversaries have yet to launch such an assault, some have reportedly put the malware in place to do so.
The threat is only expected to grow as the country relies more heavily on wind turbines, solar panels and other distributed resources for its power.
During the markup, the committee also approved Energy Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette to take over the department when Secretary Rick Perry leaves his post at the end of the year. Lawmakers also advanced a number of Energy-related bills, including a proposal to reauthorize the department’s cutting-edge research office, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.