Researchers Win DOE Grant for Solar Communications Security System

A three-year study to develop a generic cybersecurity system for monitoring communications between distributed energy resource generators — including solar — and the grid is being developed by the Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, under a $900,000 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant.

“The technology does not exist right now. We are looking at the communications that would result in taking energy or supplying energy to the grid, and at how much is moving,” Research Assistant Professor Sibin Mohan said.

The CSL will develop a prototype generic system in cooperation with the United Technologies Research Center, in East Hartford, Conn., and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Wash. The team will publish open papers on the system, then seek to develop an industrial product for widespread use. The generic system will leverage the existing Open Field Message Bus (OpenFMB) telecommunications framework, as well as the VOLTTRON information exchange bus. VOLTTRON is DOE’s reference platform for transactional energy applications.

“We’ll first tackle specific systems, like electric vehicles, but the techniques to improve resiliency against attacks can inform a variety of different domains,” Mohan said.

“The goal is to protect as many types of emerging and existing renewable energy sources as we can,” he added.

While utilities may not be ready customers for such a generic system, since they already have some proprietary form of communications in place, solar aggregators, for example, would be a prime target for the technology, Mohan said. If an aggregator has a group of solar installations in a community, this technology would be of use in monitoring and protecting the communications interface, he suggested.

“The models will aid in understanding how solar farms, buildings, electric vehicles, and more operate individually, but we’ll also need to understand how they all work together to develop effective cybersecurity strategies,” Mohan said.

The prototype system should be ready in about a year and a half, and the final system should be in place within three years; the term of the grant. The CSL grant is part of DOE’s Integration of Green Renewable Energy Sources Securely with Buildings and Electric Power (INGRESS) project. The objective of the program is described as: “Distribution system and building owners and operators could benefit from improved cybersecurity situational awareness, within energy distribution systems, to assist them in identifying a cyber-attack on these control systems and in determining whether an identified cyber-attack could degrade grid stability and operations.”

The objective of the program is for the project team to research, design, and develop an open-source, inline, advanced cyber-attack detection and resiliency-enabling building and grid cybersecurity platform deployable for legacy and emerging behind-the-meter distributed energy resources (DER). The research platform will “build and continuously improve upon models of equipment to automatically identify and prevent malicious control commands or DER operations in real time,” DOE states.

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Charles W. Thurston is a journalist who specializes in renewable energy, from finance to technological processes. He has been active in the industry for over 25 years, living and working in locations ranging from Brazil to Papua New Guinea.

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