Photo Courtesy of Black & Veatch

At about 1:00 a.m. on April 16, 2013, snipers hit and knocked out 17 transformers in 19 minutes at the Pacific Gas & Electric's Metcalf power transmission station near San Jose, Calif. This illustrates a nightmare scenario for electric utilities: A physical or cyber attack that disrupts power transmission.

More and more utilities are bringing in engineers to examine the electrical grid's vulnerabilities to attacks.

"Our security consulting division is closely involved with our utility customers to find the best ways to achieve both the physical and intellectual hardening of their facilities," says Chris Vincze, CEO of TRC Cos. Inc. (No. 30 on the 2014 Top 500 Design Firms).

Black & Veatch (No. 16 on the 2014 Top 500 Design Firms) also is working on electric-power resiliency, says Dean Oskvig, CEO of Black & Veatch Energy. "It is our job to determine what our customers need and what they can do in case of major power interruptions," he says, adding that Black & Veatch is actively engaged with customers in tabletop simulations of cyber attacks to prevent power disruptions.

The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security has said electric utilities are responsible for protecting the grid, Vincze notes. "This is a big issue, and it will be for years to come. We can figure out the layers of protection for the grid now, but the trick is to figure out how to stay ahead of the game," he says.

Adds Oskvig: "You can protect against the current level of attacks, but you can never be 100% secure. Hackers do not play by the rules, and you have to be prepared for that."