Our electrical grid was designed more than a century ago, when it only had to support a light bulb or two in each home. In this traditional model, energy only flows in one direction, from power plants (that run mostly on fossil fuels) to homes and businesses. Flash forward to today, and we’re still using the same old grid to support a modern lifestyle that is chockfull of power-hungry appliances and gadgets. To fix this discrepancy, the U.S. Department of Energy is working on updating our infrastructure, moving to a “smart grid” model over the next decade. This new energy system will use digital technology to communicate and transfer energy in a more thoughtful way.
Traditionally, supply has followed demand, with power plants producing and delivering energy at the moment it’s needed. But renewable sources of energy are intermittent, and power suppliers don’t control when the sun shines or the wind blows. The good news is that today’s grid operators have many new opportunities to manage power usage by tapping into smart meters, connected appliances, electric vehicles, and countless devices that are connected through the Internet of Things. These many new points of control could be used to improve efficiency and support a flexible grid. If there is excess demand on the system, appliances could go into energy saving mode—for example, a refrigerator would decrease its temperature by a few degrees during peak hours.
The downside is that opening these access points make the grid vulnerable to both accidental and malicious power failure. Therefore, cybersecurity of control systems is one of the major research challenges in the smart grid. “Future control systems will include cybersecurity as the design requirement to guarantee the resilience of power grids against cyber attacks,” said Radhakishan Baheti, program director for the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Energy, Power, Control and Networks Program.
It’s possible for hackers to send false information to mislead grid operators, influencing the decisions they make about how to manage the network of electricity. One approach for securing the grid from potential cyberattacks uses game and control theory. Cedric Langbort is a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign engineer who is using NSF funding to develop secure control algorithms based on game theory. He is developing an algorithm that would help grid operators make decisions when information is incomplete or even purposefully misleading. “There is a lot of interest in cybersecurity right now,” Langbort says. “Because these are difficult, fundamental problems. These types of games that involve partial information are not well understood.”