Hitachi Energy
Substation yard. Courtesy of Hitachi Energy.

Managing the Power Grid's Vulnerabilities

Dec. 10, 2021
Since threats can’t be avoided, how about minimizing them?

Well, 2021 is almost a wrap. With the end of the year, there are a lot of “year in review” features hitting the news. One of the major focuses has been global climate change and the extreme events that happened. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reported that for the first nine months (latest available data) of 2021, 18 weather-related disasters hit the U.S. Other parts of the world have also had their share of these climate change catastrophes, but let’s look at two particular storms that aptly illustrate the impact these events have.

Winter Storm Uri, and Hurricane Ida affected large geographical areas and large portions of the power delivery system in unexpected ways unique to climate change. The wrath of Uri extended from Canada, across the U.S., and into Northern Mexico. Uri left almost 10 million people without electricity for an extended period. It was especially hard on ERCOT’s (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) power grid. The interconnection came within a few minutes of total collapse.

Hurricane Ida did a lot of damage in the Caribbean, and then the warm waters of the Gulf  increased its strength off the Louisiana coast. When it hit the U.S, it inflicted catastrophic damage to the power system. Once on land, it became a strong tropical storm causing overwhelming flooding with high winds from the deep south to New England Power outages all along its route were common. It knocked out all eight transmission lines powering New Orleans and took many days to restore power.

Why’s It Never Simple?

According to NOAA, climate change is making these storms more severe, costly, and numerous each year. All of which points out why the subject of grid hardening has also been popping up throughout 2021. Grid hardening is a difficult subject to address. There are so many threats facing the power grid and so many solutions being offered. Literally there is no one solution that fits all conditions. It’s reminiscent of that old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

The best hardening technology depends on which type of threat is being discussed and what the speaker feels is needed. Also, threats to the power delivery infrastructure come in many forms. One may be geophysical events, electromagnetic pulses is another, and cyber-attacks yet another. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Typically when grid hardening is discussed, many assume it means having a grid that is event-proof (i.e., able to withstand any threat), but that isn’t a realistic approach. A more reasonable approach is to address vulnerability management on the grid. A system that can quickly adapt to changing conditions while minimizing infrastructure damage may be more reliable.

That is exactly what utilities, grid operators, and other power delivery stakeholders had in mind when they began the smart grid modernization plan for the grid. These digital technologies produced intelligent systems within the grid that can respond rapidly to changes. They provide a structure for hardening based on being able to recover quickly from harsh conditions rather than trying to be event-proof.

IT/OT & Modernization

As the modernization process advanced, a connectiveness between Information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) took place. Previously these two systems have been developing on two separate tracks, but now they are working together. It’s called the IT/OT convergence and it’s a game changer. The convergence has led to some powerful applications when it comes to making a flexible power grid.

Taking OT data and using IT methodologies allowed that physical data to be quickly converted into actionable information, and advanced asset management platforms, distributed energy management systems, and distribution network applications became possible. Applying these applications has permitted the asset rich substation to reap some amazing benefits. Interconnectivity results in faster data exchange between equipment, which makes it possible for substation automation (SA) protection and control systems, and provides operational advantages.

According to a report from Research And Markets, a research company, the global SA market size is estimated to be about US$39.9 billion in 2021 and is being projected to reach approximately US$ 54.2 billion by 2026. The report said, “The market has a promising growth potential due to several factors, including the surge requirement to retrofit conventional substations, increasing investments in smart cities and smart grid infrastructure development projects.”

Research And Markets identified the following suppliers as key players in this market; Cisco, Eaton Corp, General Electric, Hitachi Energy, Schneider Electric, Siemens Energy, and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories to name a few. Let’s look a little deeper at these substation applications to get a better understanding of the topic.

Critical Infrastructure

Eaton defines a SA system as a collection of hardware and software components used to monitor and control an electrical system, both locally and remotely. They point out that SA systems also automate repetitive, tedious, and error-prone activities to increase the overall efficiency and productivity of the system. This has been made possible by their increased interconnection with equipment and other substations.

These substations produce real-time data, which permits higher self-awareness along with great levels of control. IT/OT advancements have led to the ability of networking substations that work together with little or no human interaction. Each generation improves the SA’s protection and control systems abilities, but IT/OT also increases the vulnerabilities of the grid. It does this by providing more access points for hackers to infiltrate the network, but tools like SA can counteract those cyber-attacks.

SA systems monitor the activity of the substation’s assets in real-time with intelligent electronic devices and their associated management platforms. It takes the entire facility to a new dimension of digital protection. Siemens Energy recently announced a new application for monitoring and responding to cyber threats against IT/OT networks. It uses their Managed Detection and Response system, which is powered by Eos.ii’s artificial intelligence based software.

Siemens Energy explains, “The system provides visibility and context across industrial operating environments.” Keeping the electrical grid safe is getting more challenging as more intelligent devices are integrated into intelligent networks. This connectiveness is revamping ideas and approaches to cybersecurity.

End to End Security

Talking with Pierre-Alain Graf, senior vice president, global business, Hitachi Energy, revealed some interesting aspects of Hitachi Energy’s approach to cybersecurity for SA. Graf said, “Cybersecurity is not a single solution for one problem. It requires a holistic (i.e., one system) methodology involving multiple approaches to protect the substation’s infrastructure. Today’s automation systems interconnect with multiple networks, systems, and settings.”

Graf continued, “The key question here is how do you orchestrate a cybersecurity system to detect threats and protect all of the substation’s equipment and networks. Those elements are supplied by several manufacturers and report over various communications networks, which is where interoperability standards are so important to this approach. Legacy components are too valuable to replace unless they are nearing the end of their useful life.”

Graf went on saying, “If you want to properly harden the substation it’s a process of detection and protection using physical security, OT behavior, and cybersecurity integrated into one complete scheme. It’s necessary because any security system needs to understand the full context of the operation to be effective. The Hitachi Energy method  presents the operator, who isn’t a cybersecurity expert, with a monitor screen showing the full picture of the situation as it relates to the substation in the network. It gives the operator all of the information needed to respond to what is taking place on the network and protect what is most critical to the system.”

Technological transitions like these have grown in popularity because they give users an advantage. Fast data analysis supplies actionable information that allows higher reliability and greater levels of control. This monitoring and analysis also offers improved operations and overall efficiency by identifying vulnerabilities in critical systems and closing gaps before they can be used by hackers.

Proactive Response

It’s referred to as a proactive response, which is the resilience needed to meet security risks that can compromise system performance. Rather than being a vulnerability, the SA system’s abilities can strengthen the system to cybersecurity threats. It not only represents a powerful tool in the utility’s grid reinforcing toolbox, it’s a weapon for improved cybersecurity.

By combining SA with advanced technologies like big-data analytics and cloud-based computing, real-time actionable data is generated quickly. It’s decision making on steroids, but that’s only part of it. Taking that to another level requires adding artificial intelligence (AI) and digital twin technology, which adds situational awareness for predictive and preventative capabilities.  

SA combined with an AI enhanced virtual twin boosts cybersecurity by having a digital model that understands when a cyber intruder is trying to cause problems and shuts them down quickly. This approach is more efficient for addressing other threats to the power grid too. It is more effective to minimize the hazards with fast responding applications than trying to make an impervious grid. And it’s achievable!

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