Scientists turn to physics — not IT — for next-gen power grid cybersecurity

The number of cyberattacks this year is up — way up. This month, the Identity Theft Resource Center released a data analysis showing the number of breaches this year through Sept. 30 has exceeded the number from all of last year by 17%. 

Thanks to its size and complexity, the electric grid is particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks. Plus, the grid needs new protections from cyberattackers as it is modernized with new technologies. Argonne National Laboratory scientists created a new method of securing the grid that maintains its stability by considering the physics of the grid instead of taking the usual IT-based approach.

“The unique angle our group brings is that we don’t look at cybersecurity from the IT perspective, we look at it from the power system perspective,” computational scientist Hyekyung Clarisse Kim said in a statement. ​“We have to assume our adversary is smart and will figure out how to get past IT protections and penetrate the system.”

Development and testing

Kim and fellow computational scientist Bo Chen partnered with tech company Hitachi ABB Power Grids to develop a new security layer and decision framework that identifies cyberthreats and stops them so the grid can keep operating even if an attack occurs. They especially set out to protect high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, which carry power over long distances.

“Because they have this superior capacity to exchange power, it’s very important to protect HVDC lines from being compromised,” Chen said. “Once they’re compromised, it can cause large disturbances to the power system,” including widespread power outages.

The researchers started by gathering knowledge of how the grid typically operates and what signals it should send. They used a Wide Area Monitoring, Protection and Control (WAMPAC) platform to get this real-time data, then they built an algorithm that would take and learn this information so it could quickly detect when something goes wrong.

The Argonne team achieved nearly 100% accuracy when they tested the detection algorithm in the lab. Then they integrated the technology into Hitachi ABB’s real-time simulator test bed at its corporate research center in North Carolina, and it successfully detected a simulated attack. They also had success during the final test, which took place on a replica station at the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal nonprofit wholesale power marketer in Portland, Oregon.

“Argonne’s defense system is based on wider system information than is currently available for HVDC stations, so it provides more effective detection and mitigation of malicious external control commands,” said Reynaldo Nuqui, senior principal scientist at Hitachi ABB Power Grids.

What’s next

Existing transmission systems aren’t all equipped with the next-gen technologies that would require such an advanced cybersecurity system. But the Argonne researchers’ algorithm could become widely used when transmission operators and asset owners upgrade their grid technologies to accommodate new clean energy.