Senators call for Huawei ban in letter to FERC

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10 United States Senators (James Risch, Angus King Jr., Richard Burr, Mark Warner, Marco Rubio, Susan Collins, Tom Cotton, John Cornyn, Ben Sasse and Joe Manchin III) have penned, typed, if we’re being specific, a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and its chair, Neil Chatterjee, asking that the commission provide assurance that it “Fully appreciates the threat posed to the nation’s energy infrastructure by the use of equipment manufactured by Huawei.”

This is the second letter this year sent by a group of 10 or more Senators to a regulatory body asking for consideration of a ban on Huawei inverters, with the other one having been sent to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

In the new letter (PDF), the Senators lay the claim that Huawei-produced inverters connected to the grid in the U.S. could leave the nation vulnerable to foreign surveilance and give China “Access to meddle with portions of America’s electricity supply.

It is worth reminding that earlier this year, Huawei pulled out of the U.S. inverter market, laid off all of its U.S. citizen staff and transferred non-citizen staff out of the United States. Moreover, Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, quoted by Greentech Media in an article earlier this year estimated that while Huawei as the world’s largest inverter maker with 22% of the global market share in 2018, it holds only 4% of the U.S. market – although it has a larger share of the three-phase inverter market in the United States.

So how much of a threat does 4% of the U.S. market represent? To quote an article by former U.S. editor Christian Roselund from June:

“Here it is important to remember that in 2018, solar only provided 2.4% of the electricity in the United States, with distributed solar (plants smaller than 1 MW), representing less than 1/3 of that, or 0.7% of all power…any inverter maker has only a small part of the total systems online at any one time.

So even if one inverter maker, working on behalf of a foreign government, did shut off all of their inverters, it would be hard to have a big effect. This is particularly true if they were most active in rooftop solar markets.

[Tom] Tansy (Sunspec Alliance) says that if a foreign government or terrorist group did want to take down the grid, it would be much more effective to target large, centralized generators like coal or nuclear power plants, and not distributed solar.”

The position of the Senators is an entirely valid one – potential foreign interference with the U.S. electrical grid is an unnerving thought, especially if that interference comes from a country we are currently caught up in a trade war with. Their risk reality, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as critical as they present it to be.

FERC has recently created a cybersecurity division within the agency, however it is one that is not solely-focuses on Huawei, to the chagrin of these 10 concerned Senators. In the previously referenced piece, Tom Tansey shares that there are frequent cyberattacks on the grid now, and so far they haven’t caused any major blackouts.

Attacks are made against critical infrastructure every single day. Just like attacks on the banking system happen 24/7.

Likley FERC’s cybersecurity division will handle these more constant threats, at least in some capacity.

So for now, fear not. The U.S. energy grid is safe from the limited scope of harm that Huawei could potentially cause, if it so chose. Whether or not we are safe from a planet undergoing climate change and the real danger posed from that went unaddressed in the letter, but surely is is being considered.