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During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama reiterated his long-touted allegiance to renewable energy development. However, in a surprising move, the speech brought another grid-related issue onto the national stage: cybersecurity. Following recent reports of cyber attacks on organizations such as the New York Times and various banks, cybersecurity has increasingly become a concern for utilities and the nation as a whole.

"America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber attacks,” Obama said during the address. “Now, we know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private emails. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy."

The president went on to announce that, earlier Tuesday, he had signed a new executive order, declaring that it will “strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs and our privacy.”

In essence, the executive order calls for collaboration among federal agencies and industry partners to address cyber concerns related to “critical infrastructure,” including the nation’s power plants. The order outlines the following initiatives:

- The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will be tasked with developing a Cybersecurity Framework. According to a Commerce Department press release, NIST will issue a request for information from infrastructure stakeholders, governments, consumers and other standards groups and use the data to help determine effective cybersecurity protocols.

- The order expands the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services program, a voluntary initiative through which infrastructure companies share cyber threat data.

- The order also calls for new data-sharing programs to help give cyber threat information to U.S. companies. Federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, will be required to offer companies timely unclassified reports.

To read the full executive order, click here.

Call for action
During Obama’s first term, his administration made several strides toward cybersecurity. Last January, for example, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the Electric Sector Cybersecurity Risk Management Maturity initiative, which aims to protect the electric grid from cyber attacks. After that, in June 2012, the department also launched the Cybersecurity Self-Evaluation Survey Tool to help utilities create their own cybersecurity efforts.

Perhaps the most significant gesture toward cybersecurity, though, was the administration’s full support of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012. Senate Republicans, however, blocked the proposed legislation in August.

During Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Obama emphasized that both political parties must start working together to protect the nation’s infrastructure. “But now Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks,” he said. “This is something we should be able to get done on a bipartisan basis.”

Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who co-introduced the Cybersecurity Act, commended the president for signing the new executive order, but she also demanded further action.

“Legislation is still needed to remove legal barriers to full sharing of information and to provide liability protections to encourage the best cyber measures possible,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration seems determined to make progress on cybersecurity, with or without Congress. For instance, the DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability recently made available $20 million through a new funding opportunity announcement (FOA).

The DOE says it is seeking applications to “conduct research, development and demonstrations leading to next-generation tools and technologies that will become widely adopted to enhance and accelerate deployment of cybersecurity capabilities for the U.S energy infrastructure, including cyber secure integration of smart grid technologies.”

The FOA is available for download at

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