Extent of Chinese-made components in U.S. electrical grid still unknown
An increasing number of utility companies are avoiding the purchase of large power transformers from China due to heightened awareness of security risks, according to a U.S. Department of Energy official who spoke at a Senate panel.
Puesh Kumar, head of the department’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response, testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He stated that the U.S. government is examining the extent of Chinese-made components in the electric grid but did not provide a timeline for the completion of this analysis, which frustrated senators from both parties.
Senator Angus King emphasized the urgent need to determine the Chinese origin and content of critical electric system components, citing potential opportunities for malicious activities. Kumar acknowledged that the Energy Department is investigating which grid components could cause significant disruption if compromised and which subcomponents come from adversarial nations, including China.
National laboratories have tested electrical equipment down to the chip or software level to identify their countries of origin. Kumar highlighted the challenge of tracing subcomponents, as they could be linked to an American or friendly-country manufacturer at the top level, but might be sourced from an adversarial nation at the subcomponent level.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley questioned the Biden administration’s suspension of a Trump-era executive order restricting the procurement of foreign electrical equipment. Kumar responded that the Biden team is adopting a more strategic and comprehensive approach to supply chain security.
Robert M. Lee, CEO of cybersecurity firm Dragos, suggested that Congress should impose more security requirements on firms serving critical infrastructure providers, not just electric utilities. Meanwhile, the transformer industry is under pressure from both security risks and supply chain challenges. Kumar mentioned the possibility of allocating funds from the Defense Production Act to incentivize domestic transformer production and working with other departments to develop apprenticeship programs to train more people in transformer manufacturing.