14 September 2005
Securing the power grid
The nation's power distribution system is vulnerable to natural breakdowns and hacker attacks.
That is why the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a five-year project to design, build, and validate a secure cyber infrastructure for the next-generation electric power grid. Called the "Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid," four universities will take part in the study.
William H. Sanders, professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will lead the consortium, which also includes researchers at Dartmouth College, Washington State University, and Cornell University.
NSF will provide funding of $7.5 million over five years. The project is one of several announced 15 August as part of NSF's Cyber Trust program, designed to safeguard computers and networks that underlie the nationís infrastructure. The Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security have pledged to collaborate with NSF to fund and manage the power grid effort.
The project will address the physical structure of the grid and the computer communications network that operates it, said Robert Thomas, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering and the universityís representative on the research project. "Most people think of the grid as just the wires and transformers, but that's not all of it," he said. The grid includes automatic control systems as well as thousands of relays designed to take equipment out of service in case of physical or electrical problems, he said. The relays become activated by sensor information and some computation because problems arise so quickly that humans would not be able to respond in time.
The 2003 blackout of the northeastern U.S. and Ontario was primarily a communication failure, said Thomas, who was on assignment to the U.S. Department of Energy in 2003 as a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution and as a member of the blackout investigation team. "It started when power lines sagged onto trees and short-circuited, and the monitoring system didn't see and communicate it," he said.
The computer network, which also carries business information about the power system, also could be vulnerable to deliberate attacks, he added. "Systems don't have to fail [naturally]; people could get into them," he said.
For related information, go to www.isa.org/networks.
The 2003 blackout wasn't just about fallen trees and broken transmission lines. As this timeline from the Department of Energy report shows, it resulted from a combination of many grid events, computer glitches, and human interaction.
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