Making the power grid secure is focus of NSF project

September 12, 2005

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University will be one of four institutions participating in the "Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid," a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) project to design, build and validate a secure cyberinfrastructure for the next-generation electric power grid.

The goal is to design a power distribution system that is secure against breakdowns either from natural causes or hacker attacks.

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. Robert Thomas, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering, will guide Cornell's participation.

NSF will provide funding of $7.5 million over five years, with between $500,000 and $1 million coming to Cornell. The project is one of several announced Aug. 15 as part of NSF's Cyber Trust program, designed to safeguard the computers and networks that underlie the nation's 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 both the physical structure of the grid and the computer communications network that operates it, Thomas said. "Most people think of the grid as just the wires and transformers, but that's not all of it," he said. The grid, he explained, includes automatic control systems as well as thousands of relays designed to take equipment out of service in case of physical or electrical problems. The relays are 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 United States 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 is also used to carry 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.

Cornell's share of the work will focus on determining what parts of the system are sensitive to failure and looking at marketing and technical aspects as well as computing, Thomas reported. Other Cornell faculty members will be involved, he said, including Anna Scaglione, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Tim Mount, professor of applied economics and management.

Cornell University

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