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.





Smart Grid

19 11 2011

The American power grid is ancient, much of it was built in a time before the microchip. In comparison the need for more electricity has sky rocketed, with most Americans powering their computers, smart phones, and other electronic devices, we are relying on an old technology to carry us forward3.  In order to fix this situation the smart grid has become a hot topic.   The smart grid is an attempt to more intelligently provide from the suppliers to the consumers.  The grid analyzes and predicts where and to whom the electricity need to go.  By placing small remote control computers on wires, substations, transformer, switches, and meters, all of these devices can talk together to provide energy where it is needed when it is needed.

The smart grid is a way to help improve both the power companies and the consumers.  With a smarter grid the power companies will be able to see where power outages occur, and where they have weaknesses in their systems.  With the current way of doing things power companies don’t even know there is a problem until a customer reports it.  On the consumer side, with a smart grid people will be able to see when and where they use power.  They can more easily see what devices take up the most power and how they can cut back their electricity usage and their electricity bill2.

When power companies place all these devices on the network and have them all talk to each other there are some major security concerns that arise.  The first security problem is the radio frequency communication that the devices use.  An attacker could access this wireless information and monitor the traffic, additionally they could insert their own data and change how power is distributed throughout the network.  The attacker could also stop a node from receiving or sending data, and could this type of attack shut down a network?1  All of these very important questions need to be asked, and the power companies that are implementing these systems need to have a plan.

Another point of weakness are the devices or meters in an individual homes.  If an attacker had access to the usage of power in a home, they could tell when people were home, when they were at work, or if they went on vacation.  Having this personal information sent to the power company to better supply you with a service is great, but what about the security risks of sending that information over an unsecured network.

There are countless ways that an attacker might try and gain access to information that could be sensitive.  The real question is what are the power companies doing to protect themselves and the consumer.  When the smart grid was first initialized and began deployment little consideration was put into the security.  Now that it was been in the field and attackers have gained access to sensitive information , these companies are starting to put security in place.

The important take away point here is that when organizations, be they corporate enterprises or government bodies, they need to think about the security of what they are trying to do.  When they were developing the smart grid the main points were probably, “look at all the neat things we could do with this”, and not many people were saying we need to look at the security implications of what we are attempting.  When groups like Anonymous or lolzsec declaring war on different organization, companies must have security of their infastructrure and their consume at the front of their minds.

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1.Lafferty, Shawn, and Tauseef Ghazi. “The Increasing Importance of Security for the Smart Grid – Utility Automation/Electric Light & Power.” Electric Transmission, Distribution, Generation Power Grid Technology: POWERGRID Intl – Electric Light and Power. Web. 08 Nov. 2011. <http://www.elp.com/index/display/article-display/6034594443/articles/utility-automation-engineering-td/volume-16/issue-4/features/the-increasing-importance-of-security-for-the-smart-grid.html&gt;.

2. “Smart Grid | Department of Energy.” Energy.gov | Department of Energy. Web. 08 Nov. 2011. <http://energy.gov/oe/technology-development/smart-grid&gt;.

3. United States. Department of Energy. The Smart Grid: An Introduction. <http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandMedia/DOE_SG_Book_Single_Pages%281%29.pdf&gt;.