Duke CEO: Volume of cyberattacks is astounding

Posted at 9:59 PM, Mar 01, 2016

CARY, N.C. -- The volume of cyberattacks on the country's largest electric company is astounding, and much of it is coming from computer hackers backed by foreign governments, Duke Energy Corp. CEO Lynn Good said Tuesday.

So besides hardening online defenses, Duke Energy is focusing on how quickly the company could restore power if the flow to any of its 7.2 million customers in six states is switched off by malicious outsiders, Good said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"Most of the cyberexperts that you talk to would say it's a matter of time, that at some point there will be a vulnerability that someone can exploit," said Good, who has led the Charlotte-based company for three years. "That's the world that we live in."

To illustrate the threat, Good pointed to a December hack of Ukraine's power grid that blacked out electricity to more than 225,000. The attack in the country, which is in conflict with neighboring Russia, was coordinated and highly sophisticated, U.S. authorities said in a report released last week. National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command chief Adm. Michael Rogers has warned that it's not a matter of if, but when attackers target U.S. power systems.

"If I were to share with you the number of attacks that come into the Duke network every day, you would be astounded," Good said during earlier remarks at a breakfast with business leaders. "And it's not from people working out of their garage; it's from nation-states that are trying to penetrate systems."

Here are Good's thoughts on other topics:

Clean Power Plan

The rapid court challenge by conservatives and coal-industry supporters to block President Barack Obama's effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions is speeding up resolution of the Clean Power Plan's future, Good said.

The lawsuit is on "an early litigation path that will actually provide certainty," Good said. "We will know by 2017 or 2018 how the Clean Power Plan moves through the courts. That's actually a rapid review" for an environmental law.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan aims to slow climate change by cutting power-plant emissions by one-third by 2030. Duke Energy is unlikely to need to take new pollution-cutting steps until after 2020, Good said.

"The positive way to look at this early approach is, 'Let's get the litigation resolved so we do have certainty,'" she said.

Evolving Utilities

Energy efficiency and the lingering effects of the recession have translated into a decline of electricity sales for Duke: now one-third to a quarter of what the company enjoyed during the go-go 1990s, Good said. Population growth means Duke customers in the Carolinas, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana are increasing by about 1.5 percent. But despite all the mobile phones, laptops and even electric cars that need charging, power usage per customer has been flat for most of the past year, she said.

Meanwhile, low natural gas prices, environmental regulations and growing consumer demand for clean energy are forcing electric companies to shift from coal and incorporate more renewable power generation. Utilities need to attract capital to finance their evolution, Good said.

To preserve its value as a steady, dividend-paying stock, the company has been shifting into safe, regulated businesses in which state utilities commissions build a profit level on top of the cost of delivering electricity. Steadiness also is why Duke Energy is buying a natural gas company, a move mirrored by Atlanta-based Southern Co. and Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Resources. Meanwhile, Duke Energy is selling power plants in seven Latin American countries to shed volatility, Good said.

"An investor in Duke Energy is expecting a dividend payment. That's roughly 70 to 75 percent of the earnings I produce," she said. "The business that goes with that level of dividend is a business that has more predictability, more stability."