Berkeley Lab Aims to Strengthen the Cybersecurity of the Grid

As the U.S. electricity grid continues to modernize, it will mean things like better reliability and resilience, lower environmental impacts, greater integration of renewable energy, as well as new computing and communications technologies to monitor and manage the increasing number of devices that connect to the grid. However, that enhanced connectivity for grid operators and consumers also opens the door to potential cyber intrusions.

As part of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) commitment to building cyber-resilient energy delivery systems, a new project led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will develop tools to detect and counter certain types of cyber attacks on the grid. The project has been awarded up to $2.5 million in funding over three years by DOE, one of 20 projects for cybersecurity on the grid announced recently.

With rooftop solar panels surging in popularity in the U.S. – growing from 30,000 homes in 2006 to more than 1 million last year – Berkeley Lab’s project focuses on solar inverters, devices that turn the direct current from rooftop solar panels into alternating current that is fed back onto the grid. So-called “smart inverters” can enhance overall system reliability and reduce operational costs.

Industry and government are now developing standards for how solar inverters communicate with the grid so that the photovoltaic (PV) modules can adjust their power levels accordingly.

“It is this standardization that presents a vulnerability,” said Daniel Arnold, a Berkeley Lab researcher and engineer who is one of the leads of the project. “As we modernize the grid, our belief is that we, as a society, can enjoy all of the benefits of large amounts of distributed PV, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and a more resilient system, and still have a secure network that is potentially more robust to cyber intrusions than it was before the introduction of large amounts of distributed PV.”

In this project, Berkeley Lab will develop algorithms to essentially use the system in the same way the hackers might do but sending opposite signals to nullify the attack, similar to what a noise-canceling headphone does. “If an attacker tries to manipulate the settings in a number of PV inverters, we’ll observe these manipulations, then identify the settings in PV inverters that have not been hacked, and finally, dispatch the appropriate settings to the inverters deemed safe in order to counter that attack,” said Arnold, a researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Grid Integration Group.

The concept is based on watching for irregularities in the physical behavior of the grid. “There are laws that govern the way the power grid operates from a physical perspective,” said Sean Peisert, a cybersecurity expert in Berkeley Lab’s Computational Research Division and the principal investigator on the project. “So we leverage those insights to understand the ways in which hackers might attempt to do something to the grid.”

Ultimately the algorithms will be able to monitor the grid to provide advanced warning to a utility operator of a possible emerging attack.

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Source: Berkeley Lab