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Technologies shaping the electricity grid of the future

Posted on 04/29/2021, by INCIBE
technologies shaping the electricity grid of the future

The electrical grid model in the last 100 years has been orientated towards a grid model based on centralised generation, that is to say, based on large generation points or power plants and transmission and distribution lines, to consumption points, hundreds of kilometres away.

Centralised electrical grid

- Figure 1. Centralised electrical grid. Source: Nergiza. -

However, the trend is for the grids of the future to feature thousands of power sources, as well as end users being not only consumers, but also producers. This paradigm creates a series of challenges in the grid model in terms of, among other things, management, logistics, storage and, of course, cybersecurity. Users will be interconnected to the grid in real time, receiving and providing information. It will thus be possible to have an optimal system that will reduce production and maintenance costs.

Electrical grid of the future

- Figure 2. Electrical grid of the future. Source: Nature. -

This digitalisation must be implemented at all levels of the grid to fully exploit the production load. One of the technologies that will benefit from this type of grid will be renewable power. Currently, in Spain about 80% of the total power produced by renewables is inserted into the grid. The grid of the future aims to reach 100%.

One of the technologies that is expected to be used to transmit information is blockchain, since, thanks to its characteristics, it guarantees the integrity of the data being transmitted to the system, as well as the legitimacy of the machines connected to the grid and many other details. Since it is a bidirectional information flow, from the electrical grid to the consumer and from the consumer to the grid, it is important for these communications to be secure and that they do not act as an input vector for malicious users who seek to harm both the consumer and the electrical grid in general.

Possible problems derived from new technologies

As the number of elements that will form part of the grid rises, you must take into account that the exposure becomes greater, increasing the possible different attack vectors. The trend is towards a smarter and more automated, and more efficient, stable and reliable electrical grid, but as automated processes increase, new security risks also emerge, such as loss of grid control in certain neglected areas.

Therefore, the main aim is to guarantee the availability of the electricity supply. To do so, the following points must be protected:

  • Device security. In order to guarantee the security of the electrical grid, it is necessary to highlight the security of each of the devices of which it consists. Some of these devices can be RTUs, IEDs, communication gateways, etc. One possible implementation to improve the security level begins with monitoring the grid above all the grid’s critical assets, so that any anomalous operation can be detected to identify any possible cyberattack.

  • Security of communication protocols. As we have already seen, another important point is to guarantee communications. For this, all the security measures available to the protocols must be used, so that no malicious user is able to violate the availability, confidentiality and integrity of communications. In our guide we covered the communication protocols used in a smart grid, as well as the security measures in them, in depth.

Summary table of protocols in smart grids

- Figure 3. Summary table of protocols in smart grids. Source: Security guide for Industrial Protocols Smart Grid. -

  • Security in the grid topology. Security must be guaranteed in the information flow, so that, if an attack is directed against a specific element of the grid, communications are not completely interrupted.

New smart grid technologies offer multiple benefits, such as using renewable sources, better use of power and greater process automation. However, these benefits increase security risks, so the necessary security measures must be taken to mitigate these risks.

Security measures in the electrical grid of the future

To guarantee the security of the future smart grid, consideration is being given to implementing the following security measures:

  • Machine Learning and IA (Artificial Intelligence) to defend oneself. New defence mechanisms have been created in the area of future grids that guarantee the three basic security principles: integrity, confidentiality and availability. One of the objectives of the grid of the future is to integrate machine learning algorithms for real-time detection and prevention of any cyberattack on it. Once the cyberattack has been analysed and studied, a probabilistic neural grid model will be trained to extract lessons learned from the attacks and, thus, to identify future incidents.

  • Improve the robustness of the system. One of the advantages of the grids of the future is their improved operability. For this, grid structures are designed to maintain both the electrical and data flow in the event of system failures. The new topologies would make it possible to replace nodes immediately when a computer fails. This is achieved with autonomous nodes that do not depend on others to operate.

  • Blockchain for data encryption and information tracking. By using blockchain, users ensure that information transactions stored in the electrical process are reliable thanks to the combination of hashing and sequential cryptography. Immutability of the data is thus achieved, which makes it very difficult for any attacker or user to manipulate information, as compared to traditional methods. Another improvement provided by the use of blockchain is the traceability of the information exchanged. Each transaction would be digitally signed, so the user who provided the data could be tracked. What is more, another interesting point in terms of traceability is that it will also give you control over the origin of the power. This could help us to know how much power from renewable sources is being supplied or the power that a user is contributing to the grid.

Conclusions

Thanks to the new technologies that are being developed and implemented in the electrical grid, it is hoped that it will guarantee optimal production and distribution of power, but, as with any new technology, new challenges also arise in ensuring cybersecurity. This article has shown how new emerging technologies, such as blockchain or artificial intelligence, provide security measures that will allow the electrical grid of the future to maintain all its functionality and be as secure as possible, thus preventing any possible attack affecting the availability of electricity. If all the measures are applied correctly, a more reliable and cheaper electrical grid will be achieved, thanks to improved equipment maintenance and optimal power distribution.