URI researchers awarded $500,000 grant to assess how to secure power grid

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KINGSTON, R.I. – September 20, 2011 – Growing energy demand and environmental concerns have driven interest in the development of a “smart” electric power grid that will enable consumers to not only purchase electricity but also sell power they may generate at home. The multiple access points to this proposed system raise serious concerns about the security of the grid from both physical and cyber attacks.

A team of researchers at the University of Rhode Island have been awarded a $499,435 grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a vulnerability analysis of the smart grid and develop innovative responses to maintain the integrity of the grid if it were attacked.

“Knowledge of the behavior of the power grid system under attack scenarios will allow us to develop new defense strategies,” said Haibo He, URI assistant professor of electrical engineering who, along with Yan Sun, associate professor of computer engineering, and Peter August, professor of natural resources science, are the lead researchers on the project. “We want to be able to predict where an attack on the system is most likely to occur, identify how that attack may propagate through the grid, and find ways to prevent or minimize damage.”

Because the architects of the smart grid envision enabling consumers to connect their solar panels, wind turbines or other electricity generating facilities to the system, the grid becomes more vulnerable to attacks.

“We’re really pushing the frontier of understanding the vulnerability of this kind of system,” said Sun, an expert in computer security. “No one has systematically studied the consequences of attacks that attempt to knock out multiple nodes and links in the system at once or in sequence.”

According to the URI researchers, the power grid is a major target of terrorists and others seeking to cause damage, and computer hackers have already demonstrated their ability to penetrate the system. Extensive power outages can have serious effects on the economy and national security.

“An attack against the system is an evolving event,” explained Sun. “If we can understand the signature of an attack, by identifying the difference between a normal power outage and a malicious attack, we may be able to respond much faster and confine the problem to a smaller area.”

A key component of the research will be the development of a complex “testbed” that incorporates GIS mapping tools and a database containing the infrastructure of the entire power system currently in place in North America. The testbed will be used to simulate power grid behavior under attack conditions and for the development of defense strategies.

Peter August, Rhode Island’s senior GIS expert, will oversee the creation of the testbed.

“The ability of GIS to map changes in the power grid that Professor He’s mathematical models predict is an exciting component of the project,” said August. “GIS will make it possible to clearly communicate the impacts of failures in the energy distribution system.”

“This project will be very helpful to government and utility decision makers to see where the critical regions of the grid are that will need extra security, and to see the affect that attacks may have,” concluded He, who was just named Rhode Island’s Rising Star Innovator by Providence Business News. “It will be critical to the national electrical infrastructure.”