New research from Michigan Technological University scientists addresses “nightmare” scenarios for energy systems, where hackers exploit security weaknesses and execute a disruptive plan of cyber attacks. Lead author Chee-Wooi Ten, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at MTU, said the fundamental problem is a gap between physical equipment and intangible software.
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 centres—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 said, 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 cyber attack that can cause larger power outages, people are starting to grasp the severity of the problem.”
Ten pointed 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. According to Ten, 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 cyber security threats
Ten and his team drew connections and assessed weaknesses using a framework that would constantly assess the bottleneck of a power grid and its interconnection with their neighbouring grids. Using quantitative methods to prioritise cybersecurity protection will ensure power grids are operated in a more secure and safer manner. Ten said it is 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,” said Ten.
“The grid 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 is easier to be strategic and shore up security risks. In the long run, Ten said improving regulations with specifics to match actual infrastructure needs and providing cyber security insurance will help.
“Simply because the remote substation networks are constantly commissioned with full compliance doesn’t mean they are secure,” he said.
“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.”