Protecting bulk power systems from hackers

February 10, 2017 by Allison Mills
Hackers target specific parts of the control network of power infrastructure and they focus on the mechanisms that control it to cause power outages and blackouts. Credit: Michigan Tech, Sarah Bird

Reliability measures of electrical grid has risen to a new norm as it involves physical security and cybersecurity. Threats to either can trigger instability, leading to blackouts and economic losses.

New research led by scientists from Michigan Technological University delves into so-called "nightmare" scenarios where hackers exploit security weaknesses and execute a disruptive plan of cyberattacks. The journal IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid published their work recently. Lead author Chee-Wooi Ten, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, says the fundamental problem is a gap between physical equipment and intangible software.

Hacked

Advances in smart grid technology—such as smart meters in homes, management systems for distributed energy resources like wind and solar production along with instrumentation systems in power plants, substations or control centers—create both improvements in monitoring and entry points for hackers.

"Ten years ago, cybersecurity simply didn't exist—it wasn't talked about and it wasn't a problem," Ten says, joking that people thought he was crazy for suggesting power grid hacking was possible. "Now with events like in Ukraine last year and malware like Stuxnet, where hackers can plan for a cyberattack that can cause larger power outages, people are starting to grasp the severity of the problem."

Specific targets are weak in terms of a power grid's cybersecurity; the impacts hacking have cascading effects through the system leading to equipment failure, power outages, blackouts and islanding where a grid section is cut off from the main grid. Credit: Michigan Tech, Vassilissa Semouchkina

Ten points out that hackers target specific parts of the control network of power infrastructure and they focus on the mechanisms that control it. Automated systems control much of the grid from generation to transmission to use. As Ten puts it, the convenience and cost reduction of automation streamlines the process, but without solid security measures, it also makes the systems vulnerable. The interconnectedness of the grid can also cause cascading impacts leading to blackouts, equipment failure and islanding where regions become cut off and isolated from the main power grid.

Emerging Cybersecurity Threats

Ten and his team draw connections and assess weaknesses using a framework that would constantly assess the bottleneck of a and its interconnection with their neighboring grids. Using quantitative methods to prioritize cybersecurity protection will ensure power grids are operated in a more secure and safer manner. Ten says it's like measuring blood pressure.

"You know your health is at risk because we monitor systolic and diastolic numbers, so perhaps you work out more or eat healthier," Ten says. "The needs established metrics for health too, a number to gauge if we are ready for this security challenge."

With a better understanding of the system's weaknesses, it's easier to be strategic and shore up security risks. In the long run, Ten says improving regulations with specifics to match actual infrastructure needs and providing insurance will help.

"Simply because the remote substation networks are constantly commissioned with full compliance doesn't mean they are secure," Ten says. "There is going to be a tremendous impact if we're negligent and fail to keep up with changes in communication infrastructure and emerging security threats."

Explore further: When hackers turn out the lights

More information: Chee-Wooi Ten et al. Impact Assessment of Hypothesized Cyberattacks on Interconnected Bulk Power Systems, IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid (2017). DOI: 10.1109/TSG.2017.2656068

Related Stories

When hackers turn out the lights

September 16, 2016

The development of the smart power grid and the smart meter in our homes to accompany it brings several benefits, such as improved delivery and more efficient billing. Conversely, any digital, connected technology also represents ...

Smart Grid Technology: Vulnerable To Hackers

March 23, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Smart Grids are digitally based electricity distribution and transmission systems and test have shown that a hacker can break into the system resulting in a massive blackout.

Cybersecurity: Plugging smart grid weaknesses

June 5, 2013

Power companies are increasingly upgrading to smart grids—national or state-based intelligent computer systems that collect information from consumers and suppliers in order to automatically improve the grid's efficiency ...

Recommended for you

Volumetric 3-D printing builds on need for speed

December 11, 2017

While additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3-D printing, is enabling engineers and scientists to build parts in configurations and designs never before possible, the impact of the technology has been limited by ...

Tech titans ramp up tools to win over children

December 10, 2017

From smartphone messaging tailored for tikes to computers for classrooms, technology titans are weaving their way into childhoods to form lifelong bonds, raising hackles of advocacy groups.

Mapping out a biorobotic future  

December 8, 2017

You might not think a research area as detailed, technically advanced and futuristic as building robots with living materials would need help getting organized, but that's precisely what Vickie Webster-Wood and a team from ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gkam
Feb 11, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Estevan57
Feb 11, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
gkam
1 / 5 (5) Feb 11, 2017
This is national security, not politics. We have already traced some intrusive software in a utility computer to the Russians. They have repeatedly hacked into our government systems.

If they can shut down the grids of others, they can do it to us.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.