Sharing tools and ideas for cybersecurity among its member-owner generation and transmission cooperatives is something power provider Associated Electric Cooperative had practiced for years.
A cyberattack in 2020 took that to a whole new level.
“We had a malware incident at one of our 51 distribution cooperatives, and because of the longtime collaboration we’ve had with our owner G&Ts, they called us,” said Toby Schaefer, senior manager for cyber operations at Associated, headquartered in Springfield, Missouri.
Associated and the G&Ts quickly came in and installed some of the same tools and instruments they use to protect their systems from cyberthreats.
A few months later, the same hacking group tried to attack the same co-op again.
“This time, instead of it becoming an issue, the tools immediately caught it,” said Schaefer. “That story went back to our board, along with a proposal from our G&T Cyber Security Forum to broaden the program across the entire three-tier system.”
That led to the launch of Associated’s Cyber Dome program in May 2021, with 24/7/365 monitoring, tools, equipment, software and cybersecurity services available across a system that serves rural Missouri, northeast Oklahoma and southeast Iowa. Membership is voluntary.
Cyber Dome is an example of a growing movement among electric co-ops and their statewide associations and G&Ts to join forces to strengthen end-to-end defenses against cyberthreats.
In 2022, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, which serves over 175,000 meters from its headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia, formed a wholly owned subsidiary, BrilliT, to offer other co-ops and utilities round-the-clock security services. Among its 40 employees, eight cybersecurity professionals provide assessments, strategies, data analytics and technologies. Three “certified ethical hackers” can attack a co-op system to spotlight vulnerabilities.
The Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives is organizing IT staffers from its member co-ops into a cyber mutual aid group to assist co-ops that experience a cyber incident and need to rebuild their system. The group is also brainstorming what products and technologies to pursue under the $250 million Rural and Municipal Utility Advanced Cybersecurity Grant and Technical Assistance program at the Department of Energy.
Kansas Electric Cooperatives hired its first cybersecurity director in 2022. The position serves as an IT and cybersecurity consultant for all of KEC’s co-ops and is the point of contact with authorities for threats and cyber incidents.
And New Horizon Electric Cooperative, a G&T based in Laurens, South Carolina, hired its first vice president of information security in 2021. The VP provides a course for staff across all co-op departments to “spread the message that cybersecurity is not just an IT problem” and visits member co-ops to evaluate cybersecurity technologies, processes and procedures and make recommendations.
"This trend shows hope co-ops are seeing cybersecurity is not just an IT problem but as a shared responsibility that spans across every corner of an organization,” said Carter Manucy, NRECA’s senior manager for cybersecurity. “If we are all to be successful, IT and OT must work together to ensure no digital asset is left behind. NRECA is working to bring every available resource to the cooperatives for their success.”
“This is exactly what the co-ops do: They define a problem and solve it,” added Ryan Newlon, NRECA principal for cybersecurity solutions.
Peter Muhoro, Rappahannock EC’s chief strategy, technology and innovation officer and BrilliT’s general manager, says he sees co-op collaboration in cybersecurity as doing what they’ve always done: “Rise to the occasion and address the issue we know exists.”