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VA Tech Researchers Work Hard To Protect The Protectors

For months, U.S. officials have been sniffing out malicious computer code that they suspect to be planted inside the power grid and communication control systems on U.S. military bases.

Virginia Tech researchers already are working on a plan to secure future military base power grid operations and their critical missions from such threats.

“The recent string of malware cases is a wake-up call to U.S. military forces that installations in the U.S. could be neutralized without a shot being fired,” said Ali Mehrizi-Sani, associate professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Alongside Jeffrey Reed, the Willis G. Worcester Professor of Electrical and Computer EngineeringMehrizi-Sani is working to secure power grid communication systems for military base installations.

“The general idea is to coordinate backup power generation through a communication network that pools smaller energy resources,” said Mehrizi-Sani, who, along with Reed, is a Commonwealth Cyber Initiative researcher. “The concept is simple, but the implementation is difficult.”

The state of the grid

Today, most military installations rely on backup generators for individual buildings to maintain critical missions in the event of a cyberattack or another emergency situation. But without an overarching network to connect the generators, each building is siloed and vulnerable.

“If a cyberattack takes out a generator, the building will be knocked offline as will any critical operations based within,” Mehrizi-Sani said.

Last year, the U.S. Army announced plans to build a microgrid at each of its 130 bases as part of a larger strategy to enhance energy resilience, security, and sustainability.

Microgrids are small-scale power systems that can operate independently or in concert with the larger grid. By implementing microgrids, the U.S. Army will be able to pool distributed energy resources such as batteries, electric vehicles, and local power sources — including wind and solar energy.

But what is the best way to coordinate the controls of these different resources? How much power will each resource generate?

The research team is investigating these questions and developing algorithms to secure, control, and optimize the systems.

Communication is key

Future military microgrids need to be lean machines — fast and reliable. Monitoring and controlling such a grid requires communications with minimal delay or low latency.

“5G is revolutionary because it provides the low latency communications and resilience needed for the grid,” Reed said.

However, while 5G and NextG wireless networks can provide wider network coverage and faster data transmission, the infrastructure involves a tall stack of connected systems.

“A more efficient power system needs better controls, better controls require coordination, coordination needs communication,” Mehrizi-Sani said.

This daisy chain of interconnectivity presents multiple points of vulnerability: Malicious attackers can hack control commands, overload circuits, and potentially bring a grid offline.

Mehrizi-Sani’s team is working their way down the series of weak points via a multipronged approach, which includes

  • Designing a control system with security in mind from the get-go (as opposed to integrating cybersecurity features into an older system)
  • Creating a cyberattack detection and mitigation strategy for distributed energy resources
  • Ensuring secure communication by allocating “slices” or portions of a 5G network based on the needs of an application to increase efficiency and privacy

Coming soon to a microgrid near you

The first use cases of the new designs will debut on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus through the 5G Power Grid project. This ongoing collaboration between Virginia Tech Electric Services and the Power and Energy Center is supported by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia and contributes to the Virginia Tech Climate Action Working Group’s effort to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Lindsey Haugh

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