Keeping smart power grids safe from hackers

September 21, 2018

The next generation of electricity power systems will see the widespread use of “smart grids”, actively managing the flow of power between energy providers and consumers.

They will use millions of smart meters to monitor and report the pattern of power supply and usage.

In a world likely to be ever-more reliant on renewable energy, the quality of that power needs to be monitored all the more carefully. Not only are renewable systems more complex, with many small sources of power – think rooftop solar cells – but they are more unpredictable, and irregular.

That requires the grid to be integrated with a data communication network, so every part of the grid can be monitored and analysed, in real time, and continuously adjusted to provide steady and efficient power.

Such constant, critical communication across a complex system is not without risk. Not only is it vulnerable to the quirks of any computer system, the communication systems provide greater openings for cyber attacks and human error.

So it needs to be secure. Research to that end is being undertaken across the worldand at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. It is estimated that smart-grid security will draw about Dh77bn in investment over the next five years.

Researchers in the institute’s computing and information sciences department are working to bring us closer to being able to securely measure coherent smart-metering data, monitor local states, assess the components of the system and design efficient protocols.

This stronger security is needed to protect the grid against electricity thieves, hackers, business spies or even terrorists. Our study aims not only to spot vulnerabilities, but to design and develop a safe and reliable way of maintaining security.

That requires an efficient way of ensuring all messages within the system – metering data, power commands and status alarms – can be verified as genuine, and strongly encrypted so outsiders cannot abuse the data.

Privacy matters, too. Smart grids collect data about consumers’ electricity use, monitoring it every 15 minutes. Researchers at Munster University of Applied Sciences have found that smart-meter monitoring systems can even detect which television programmes are being watched, by matching power consumption with the signal for each television channel.

So we are using applied cryptography to guard consumers’ consumption habits. Utility providers know how much energy a group of users is consuming overall, but not exactly where or by whom that energy was consumed.

All of this should help Abu Dhabi meet its goal of sourcing seven per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. We are glad to be contributing to the technology and systems necessary to make that goal a secure and defensible reality.

Dr Depeng Li is a postdoctoral research fellow in theMasdar Institute of Science and Technology Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Dr. Zeyar Aung is an assistant professor in the same department.