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The nation’s future power grid looks like a network similar to the Internet and under this scenario, users and utility companies interact to share and swap energy from distributed systems, much like computer users tap into the web to transfer files.

But just as malicious Internet users try to spread harmful viruses through computer networks, attackers on the future power network could cause outages and other harmful disruptions that might disable portions of the smart grid.

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That is why a group of computer science researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology are applying their expertise on cyber security to try to prevent those disruptions.

“Most people think of cyber security as something that happens in a computer network,” said Tom Roth of St. Louis, a Ph.D. student in computer science and one of the Missouri S&T researchers on the project. “We’re usually concerned about who can access our data.

Cyber Security

“But on the smart grid, we’re not actually dealing with mainstream cyber security,” he said. “We’re looking at what an attacker could do to the physical side of the system to compromise security. For instance, a malicious resident on a smart grid could affect the stability of the power network in such a way that it could cause a blackout.

“We’re concerned about information disclosure,” Roth said. “We’re asking, ‘Can an attacker figure out, from the information being released on the grid, what part of the network might be most stressed and most vulnerable to attack?’”

Missouri S&T is one of seven universities involved in the FREEDM Systems Center, a nationwide effort established in 2008 to begin building the smart grid. The FREEDM (Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management) Systems Center is at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC.

Much of the research under way through the center focuses on creating an “Internet for energy” that, according to the FREEDM website, “will transform the power industry in a similar way that the Internet transformed the computer industry from the mainframe computer paradigm to the distributed computing we have today.” Part of that vision assumes a growth in renewable energy use and creating the ability for energy users “to not only be a customer, but to also act as an innovator of energy.”

The project’s significant computer science component has to do with distributed grid intelligence, or DGI. The effort comes from Missouri S&T by Dr. Bruce McMillin. DGI is a crucial component for making the smart grid work. It is essentially the “brains” of the operation – the command and control center.

Michael Catanzaro, a junior computer science major from St. Louis, is trying to write programs that simulate “plug-and-play” devices.

One driving idea behind the smart grid – and consistent with the grid-as-network metaphor – is the concept that the grid would be able to recognize appliances plugged in to the network, just as your PC recognizes a USB device when it plugs in to the port on a computer. The grid’s distributed intelligence would also be able to control appliance usage, so if you program your dishwasher to run when overall electricity usage is at its lowest, that’s when it will run.

“Right now, the way we simulate these devices is not very realistic,” Catanzaro said. “They’re basically empty shells we use to send and receive messages.”

So there is work to happen to make sure the future power grid is not only smart, but also safe and secure.

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