New Research Center Will Focus on Cybersecurity of Nation's Power Grid

The digital controller board could be the target of cyber attacks. Attackers would attempt to take control of the digital controller or trick it into thinking it needs to react to falsified signals.
Photo by Matt Reynolds

The digital controller board could be the target of cyber attacks. Attackers would attempt to take control of the digital controller or trick it into thinking it needs to react to falsified signals.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – University of Arkansas engineering researchers, focused on solid-state solutions to upgrade the U.S. power grid, will lead a new national center devoted to cybersecurity for electric power utilities. The center is made possible by a $12.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, augmented by $3.3 million in matching funds from the research partners.

“We’re proud to be recognized as a national leader in the area of power electronics research and security,” said Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering. “The impact of this work is tremendous. All too frequently we are hearing of how foreign entities are hacking into U.S. computer systems. This center’s mission is directly focused on protecting America’s electric energy delivery system, and we are pleased to have a great team with which to approach these challenges.”

As principal investigator and director of the new center, Mantooth will lead a team of researchers who will identify and develop solutions for vulnerabilities across the U.S. power grid. Their goal is to protect hardware assets, make systems less susceptible to cyberattack and provide reliable delivery of electricity if such an attack were to occur.

Specific objectives include protecting core power grid controls and communications infrastructure, building security and privacy protection into components and services and providing security management capabilities and security testing and validation.

To achieve these objectives, researchers will develop algorithms for software modules that can be loaded onto systems and equipment such as fault-current limiters, breakers, measurement units, relays, wireless communications systems and power-line communications.  

“By providing more reliable delivery of power as a result of reducing outages caused by cyber-attacks, the electric power system remains up, and economic loss associated with downtime is eliminated,” Mantooth said. “This is what we are seeking. And, from a homeland security perspective, the electric power grid in general becomes less susceptible to attack.”

In addition to the U of A researchers, all of whom are associated with the university’s National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission, the new cybersecurity research center includes faculty from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Carnegie Mellon University, Florida International University and Lehigh University.

Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC), a Little Rock-based generation and transmission cooperative, will serve as an industry partner. As a wholesale power provider for the state’s 17 electric distribution cooperatives, AECC will serve as the primary beta test site of all developed security tools and technologies.

“We look forward to exchanging real-world experience and knowledge with our academic partners,” said Robert McClanahan, vice president of information technology for AECC. “Cybersecurity threats are one of largest, most complicated issues that power providers face and will continue to face in the future.”

The U of A-led team was one of two chosen by the Department of Energy. The other team, led by the University of Illinois, includes the University of California-Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington State University.  

Mantooth, who holds the Twenty-First Century Research Leadership Chair in the College of Engineering, is executive director of the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission, a 7,000-square-foot, $5-million power electronic test facility at the University of Arkansas. He is also executive director of the university’s GRid-Connected Advanced Power Electronic Systems center, a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center that works to modernize the electric power grid through power electronic technologies.

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among only 2 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.

Contacts

Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor, electrical engineering
College of Engineering
479-575-4838, mantooth@uark.edu

Matt McGowan, science and research communications officer
University Relations
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu

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