Illinois Principal Research Scientist examines power grid restoration
In the wake of the COVID-19 emergency, the US has watched as people hoard toilet paper, chicken breasts, and hand sanitizer, but in a different kind of emergency – a critical loss of power grid functionality – what would we do? University of Illinois Principal Research Scientist Tim Yardley researches possible answers to this question on a small island just outside of New York City: Plum Island. There, his team has built a testbed of real, but isolated, power grids to explore the many detection, isolation, and characterization aspects of an attack on United States power.
Initially funded in 2016, the DARPA Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation, and Charterization Systems (RADICS) program explores different methods of anticipation and response to cyberattacks on the nation’s power grid. The University of Illinois is a performer on this program with their effort known as Cyber-Physical Experimentation for RADICS (CEER).
The overall project goal of CEER is to create true-to-reality environments that push the research of the RADICS program and allow for the real-world verification and validation of the experimental results. The CEER effort builds upon the long standing cyber-physical testbed built at the University of Illinois and extends it further to provide more usability and a distributed environment deployed in the field that supports actual grid energization. In the beginning the project supported verification and validation primarily in the facilities at Illinois.
More recently, this verification and validation has taken place in a physical space built by the University of Illinois on Plum Island.
“It became apparent that some of the tools that were being developed were making assumptions that likely wouldn’t hold in a real grid restoration emergency,” said Yardley.
According to Yardley, it is essential to be able to execute research against actual devices, deployed in common configurations, and in a way that provides a realistic environment. The environment built by his team is composed of three full utilities operating real gear from the powergrid that is energized just like the grid. Therefore, this closely matches any behaviors and assumptions as what would be seen in a national grid emergency.
“The testbed aims to decrease the barrier of entry for research in this space while also increasing the quality of the research output,” said Yardley. “We’re automating much of the work of setting up a realistic environment, allowing researchers to focus on the actual research rather than the mechanics to get to that research.”
Since its initial funding, the project has evolved from a state-of-the-art centralized testbed to a field-deployable realization of three utilities on this federally controlled island. This brings testing into actual, real-world deployments under the same type of control and reproducibility as the centralized facility. This allows both researchers to explore the capabilities of their research and utility operators to control the grid and see how the technology performs in the “real world”.
“The testbed technology developed here at Illinois has produced an environment that allows deep, intrusive, exploration of difficult policy, operational, and technical questions about how prepared we are in defending and restoring our electric power grid,” said Yardley. “The University of Illinois team hopes to shepherd other organizations toward more reproducible and flexible cyber-physical experimentation environments that can aid in better cyber security policies, processes, and technology.”
Six full-scale exercises have been completed, including three which have taken place on Plum Island. Each exercise sets out with its own particular objectives, but layers more complexity onto prior iterations. The sixth of these exercises concluded with three utilities that each have their own crank-path (a series of connected substations) with three-phase power that had to be restored. All three of these utilities combine at 13.2kV and must come together to support critical loads and maintain grid stability, all while recovering from and actively being attacked by mimicked adversaries. The team is looking forward to the upcoming seventh and final exercise of the RADICS program.