Infrastructure Part II: Power Grids and Cyberspace

In the 21st century, the Internet and cyberspace have become standard—even mandatory—components of daily life in the Western world, whether for business, government, or individuals. Electric grids and online systems face growing challenges and threats.


How are the U.S. and Switzerland positioned to deal with the infrastructure of the cyber age?

By Karina Rollins


Switzerland. Switzerland is second in the world, just behind Monaco, in number of Internet connections per 100 residents. Swiss Internet connections are the fifth-fastest in the world, and the second-fastest in Europe. Ninety percent of Swiss adults use the Internet.

United States. Perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. is in 20th place worldwide for number of Internet connections per 100 residents. The U.S. has the 10th-fastest Internet speed in the world. Within the U.S., the nation’s capital has the fastest connections. Eighty-nine percent of adult Americans use the Internet.

Power Grids

United States. America’s electric grid—wires, poles, transformers, and power plants—is in poor shape. Most electricity lines in the United States were built in the 1950s and ’60s—with a 50-year life expectancy and little modernization. The continental United States has more than 642,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, which are at full capacity, and 6.3 million miles of lower-voltage distribution lines. Aging equipment and material, bottlenecks, and increased demand—combined with threats from extreme weather and cyberhacking by bad actors—have left the U.S. power grid in a vulnerable position. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s energy infrastructure a D+.

In the U.S., the majority of power lines are above ground—which means that every year, tens of thousands of Americans lose power due to falling trees and snapped power lines.

Switzerland. Swissgrid—the country’s power transmission grid—supplies not only Switzerland’s population of 8 million, it also exchanges power with France, Germany, Italy, and Austria on a daily basis. Swissgrid undertakes modernization projects, and the Swiss have had few worries about system overload or losing power. Still, even in Switzerland, continuously rising demand has begun to lead to transmission bottlenecks. And, as the country shifts from nuclear energy (phasing out its five nuclear plants) and embraces renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, Swissgrid is engaged in a huge modernization process, to be completed by 2025.

As in most of Europe, Swiss power lines are mostly underground, which means the Swiss can generally weather the fiercest storms in the comfort of full electrical services.

Swissgrid’s high-voltage transmission lines are more than 4,100 miles long. Switzerland’s complete electric grid (which includes the distribution lines) is more than 155,000 miles long.

Cyber Security

United States. With nearly all aspects of personal and business life as well as government and national security matters dependent on some aspect of cyber space, cyber security is no less—perhaps even more—important than physical infrastructure. Here, too, the U.S. lags behind the threat, with U.S. cyber security lacking both expertise and funding.

America’s adversaries have hacked and meddled with cyber systems in the United States for years. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned that Russian hackers have been practicing how to cause a widespread power blackout in the United States, digitally infiltrating more than 100 electric companies in the U.S. since 2014. The DHS reported that these hackers “got to the point where they could have thrown switches” to cause a blackout, but didn’t do so. Russian hackers did “throw switches” in Ukraine on December 23, 2015, shutting down three utility companies and robbing hundreds of thousands of people of light and warmth.

Unless the U.S. does the necessary work to protect its energy infrastructure, 325 million Americans are sitting ducks, living at the whim of the Russian regime, as well as other hackers, whether acting on behalf of a government or a non-state group. The Iranian regime, for instance, has been spreading ransomware that steals bitcoins, the increasingly popular digital currency.

Switzerland. While Switzerland does not face the same national security threats as the United States, in the 21st century, every country and company is a potential target for cybercrime. By June 2017, 88 percent of Swiss companies had experienced cyberattacks (up from54 percent the previous year). That same month Switzerland boosted its cyber defenses for companies and individuals.In September 2017, the Swiss Ministry of Defense foiled a malware attack, possibly of Russian origin.

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) has declared that cyberattacks are the biggest threat to the Swiss financial system. “The risks connected with these attacks are growing in sync with the pace of global digitalization,” said FINMA chief executive Mark Branson. “Cyber-attacks are now the most serious operational hazard facing the financial system, and both the private sector and public authorities should take them extremely seriously.”

Looking Ahead

While both countries have modernization work to do, clearly the U.S. faces a more daunting task. Replacing the U.S. electric grid could cost $5 trillion. That’s a lot of money. But can the United States afford to wait any longer?

Additional reading:

2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Energy, American Society of Civil Engineers

The Danger of EMP Requires Innovative and Strategic Action, The Heritage Foundation

Can America’s Power Grid Survive an Electromagnetic Attack?, Bloomberg

Neutering North Korea’s EMP Threat, Huffington Post

Russian Hacking Attacks Could “Flood US Cities with Sewage” and Cause Deadly Explosions, Independent

Cyber Security, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs

Clarity on Cyber Security, KPMG

Isn’t it Better to Just Bury Power Lines?, CNN

Why Aren’t Power lines Buried in the U.S. Like They Are in Europe?, Electrocution Lawyers PLLC

How an Entire Nation Became Russia's Test Lab for Cyberwar, Wired