DOE seeks to focus national lab research on top cyber, grid priorities

By Peter Behr | 09/29/2015 08:14 AM EDT

A unique collaboration among the Energy Department’s national laboratories is seeking to close high-priority technology gaps facing the U.S. power grid, as it deals with disruptive operating changes and cybersecurity threats.

A unique collaboration among the Energy Department’s national laboratories is seeking to close high-priority technology gaps facing the U.S. power grid, as it deals with disruptive operating changes and cybersecurity threats.

Tomorrow is the deadline for federal laboratories to submit bids for research grants to initiate the program. The grants span a wide agenda of technology issues, including integrating renewable energy generation, storage devices, electric vehicles and "smart buildings" into power networks; improving cybersecurity of utilities’ vendor supply chain; and giving control room operators more tools to manage the grid in emergencies. The grants are projected to total nearly $200 million in all over the next three fiscal years. DOE’s 17 laboratories have an annual budget of about $13.5 billion.

The project calls for the creation of a single operating plan between DOE headquarters and the laboratories.


"I’ve only worked here 35 years, and I’ve never seen something like that, so we’re pretty excited about that," said Carl Imhoff, manager of electricity infrastructure at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and lead lab representative on the consortium.

The push to achieve better coordination among the labs is a response to DOE’s initial Quadrennial Energy Review, issued last April, which made grid modernization a top priority.

It also follows a report by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s national labs task force warning that a "proliferation of duplicative and burdensome [administrative] requirements are choking the DOE National Laboratories."

Citing tensions "throughout the laboratory complex" over program administration, the task force recommended that the labs’ work be tied more closely to DOE and national priorities. Proposals to reform the labs’ management have bipartisan support in Congress, but there isn’t bipartisan consensus on most national energy priorities (E&E Daily, June 8).

To steer the project, DOE has created the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, which will set priorities and award the research grants.

The grants, due to be awarded in November, will launch the first three years of the project as a single, integrated strategy across DOE, said Imhoff. "It calls for major new approaches, including making cyber and general security and resilience more tightly coupled to grid modernization," he said in an interview.

Imhoff’s colleague, Paul Skare, PNNL chief cybersecurity program manager, added, "We are collaborating collectively to make sure that we are able to work in partnership with DOE to identify where the gaps are in the research."

The national labs’ agendas on cyber research displays both the ambition and diversity of the projects, some of which are being promoted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Transition to Practice (TPP) commercialization program (EnergyWire, July 13).

For example, the CodeDNA technology developed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory assigns "fingerprints" to families of attack malware and looks for similarities in software code to find new attacks.

DigitalAnts, created at PNNL, employs mobile sensors that "roam" like foraging ants within interconnected computers and devices in a network, gathering and evaluating key operational indicators such as memory or processing activity. When a sensor spots activity out of the ordinary, it triggers an alarm, PNNL said. Sandia National Laboratories’ WeaselBoard technology addresses cyber vulnerabilities in grid PLCs (programmable logic controllers) on grid networks. WeaselBoard, when added to a network, analyzes communications between PLCs to spot unusual activity and detect threats.

An underlying assumption behind the QER and the new laboratory project appears to be that the changes underway in the electric power sector are irreversible, no matter what happens to the debate in Washington and the states over the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to cut power plant carbon emissions.

More solar and wind generation and microgrids are coming, the DOE plans anticipate. Linkages between electricity supply and natural gas deliveries will grow tighter. Smart meters and sensors, and other "intelligent" digital devices on the grid’s edge, now numbering in the tens of thousands, will increase to millions, Imhoff said, causing a huge increase in diagnostic information flowing to grid operators.

Tides of data

The tide of data changes the nature of the operating emergencies grid operators are likely to face, and the technologies they will need to cope with fast-moving crises.

When the high-voltage network in eastern Ohio was nearing a "cliff edge" collapse on Aug. 14, 2003, grid operators for FirstEnergy Corp. in Akron were flying blind, ignorant of the escalating signs of the approaching Northeast blackout, DOE’s investigation of the event concluded. Their control center did not have a map board representing major lines and plants on the wall facing the operators, and critically, their balky control room alarm system and system tracking software failed. But the operators did not know the alarms weren’t working.

As the information flow into control rooms escalates, the problem may be too much information, Imhoff and Skare said.

"Much of what we do today is anywhere from 10 seconds to 6 minutes in retrospect in terms of risk and what is that is doing to the system, whether it is hit by physical attack or cyberattack or storms, or just equipment damage," Imhoff said. But digital data is generated in milliseconds. "We’re trying to switch that paradigm to more real-time predictive tools that leverage new math and advanced computation, where we can actually see where the system is heading and better detect how to protect it."

Skare said a second challenge is developing a system of alarms that guides operators toward actions that give the grid the best chance of overcoming threats, whether from nature or humans.

The triggering event of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant emergency in 1979 was the failure of a critical pressure control valve, allowing the escape of cooling water required to keep the reactor core from a meltdown, the accident investigation determined. Within seconds, the plant’s alarm systems, including a loud horn and more than 100 flashing lights on the control panels, signaled the escalation of the accident. But they only confused operators, said Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian J. Samuel Walker. "I would have liked to have thrown away the alarm panel," one operator said later.

The national laboratory research project must look for ways of presenting information about increasingly complex grid emergencies in ways the operators can handle, Skare said.

"We will be looking at how the brain processes that information, which then identifies which type of data should be put on the screen [to] get the results as fast as you can," he said. "What are the most critical things to pay attention to? Then you have to do the additional analysis to say, how do I absorb that information in my brain" as fast as possible.

Charles Hanley, senior manager of grid modernization at Sandia National Laboratories, said, "It’s too early to tell how well this experiment will turn out, but it’s definitely a worthy endeavor."

It shows DOE’s recognition of the need for a concerted effort to coordinate technology research on the grid’s future, dealing with national security threats to a critical infrastructure and opening potentially tremendous economic opportunities if the United States can lead the way on these fronts, Hanely said.

"There are definitely opportunities for false starts and inefficiencies" in the grant process, he said. "Hopefully, it will lead to new, prioritized funding on a national scale."

Part of the project will support innovative grid projects in states such as California, Vermont and New York, DOE said.

"There is going to be a significant challenge, in fact, in how we track these opportunities. In general, the continuing bureaucratic pressures being placed on the labs are indeed affecting morale in a bad way," Hanley added. "But this project really works to enhance morale and cut through some of the bureaucratic overhead issues."