Smart grids and Security

9 12 2011

by Zeal P. Somani

An electrical grid has three major functions- Power Generation, Power Transmission and Power Distribution. Power generation is performed at a power plant(thermal, renewable or nuclear power plant ) at a certain level of voltage, its  transmission from power plants to power companies distribution systems at a stepped up voltage(> 110 kV), and finally distribution to consumers at stepped down voltage(<50 kV).

The communication in this supply chain is a one way communication hence the peaks and valleys of demand are not monitored and hence ignored. Additionally, over the years, the power grid infrastructure has been aging, on the contrast our electricity usage has increased because of the advent of new appliances in our homes and increasing population. Smart grid solves this one way communication limitation in a normal electric grid by facilitating two way communications. This means the flow of communication would be back and forth i.e. between the power plants (generating station) and the users. The contemporary meters that monitor our daily usage of electricity would become smart to monitor and predict our need for electricity and communicate to the generating station.

[1]Justifications for smart grid:

  • Minimize waste- With an ability to forecast demand of electricity with “smart” infrastructure, power plants will produce (supply) its equivalent.
  • Reliability- [2]Brownouts caused by sudden dip in voltage and [3]blackouts caused by environmental factors like hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, falling leaves etc. can be managed much efficiently with  better load balancing capabilities with smart grids
  • Renewable Sources of Energy- Renewable sources like sun and wind are intermittent w.r.t weather and season. Hence, with these sources an infrastructure that can talk two way and forecast demand is very necessary

Security in the smart grid:

Interoperability is one of the key features in a smart infrastructure. Interoperability is the ability of different devices to be able to communicate with each other. These devices could be from different vendors, on different platforms, handling different signals and meant for different set of users. This leads to adoptions of open standards of communication. With open standards comes the challenge of security.

The legacy power grids are controlled by SCADA(Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) Systems. These thefts would still exist in the smart grid infrastructure. Apart from these some of the other security issues posed in the smart grid infrastructure are:

Consumer Privacy– With consumer appliances being able to communicate to smart meters hosted by utility company in order to monitor usage and forecast demand and sometimes even control them. This  leads to lot of personally identifiable information of a consumer being available digitally and hence poses a big threat from hackers involved in identity theft or hackers selling this data in black market

Wireless networks security[4]The HAN(Home Area Network) in the homes of consumers would largely be a wireless networks. For e.g. smart thermostats, smart water heater, smart appliances would be controlled by smart controllers on a Zigbee or mesh wireless networks. These networks are not regulated. The spectrum is open. Hence it poses a big challenge to cumber hacking in open networks or even avoid interference from different signals. Sometimes hackers purposefully load the frequencies with noise to increase interference.

Tampering of meters and service theft– Since meters have gone smart, utility companies face challenge of ensuring tamper proof meters and avoiding any service thefts. Some consumers temper them to avoid paying high utility bills

Public safety of critical infrastructures and safeguarding from terrorism– Following recent news of an [5]attack on a Utility company in Illinois, Stuxnet and Duqu attacks, national security is prime challenge before governments. Adopting a smarter infrastructure, new technologies, making then interoperable makes our network much more open and vulnerable to cyber-attacks of terrorism

Conclusion- There are benefits with smart grids, however there are risks associated as well. [6]Threats like service theft would be become main stream. In order to defend from these attacks a co-ordinated effort from governments, utility companies and consumers is expected to drive the success of smart grid adoption. The federal government is taking several steps in this move towards smart grid. The Federal Smart Grid Task Force was established under Title XIII of the [7]Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

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