Information Trust Institute block of abstract images
Information Trust Institute block of abstract images

Illinois team receives $900,000 grant to build cyber security defenses for renewable energy sources

A team of researchers, led at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by Research Assistant Professor Sibin Mohan, has been awarded $900,000 from the Department of Energy to produce tools and strategies to protect renewable energy sources, such as electric vehicles, solar cells, and smart appliances, from cybersecurity threats.

ITI Research Assistant Professor Sibin Mohan and computer science graduate student Chaitra Niddodi
ITI Research Assistant Professor Sibin Mohan and computer science graduate student Chaitra Niddodi
The project, in collaboration with United Technologies Research Center, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Sempra Energy, leverages the expertise of cybersecurity professionals at CSL and the Information Trust Institute to address the threats that face emerging energy sources that do not yet have established methods to protect against cyberattacks.

The rise of green renewable energy sources have fueled concerns about safety, reliability, and resiliency from both cyber and physical attacks. Each source is a point of contact to the greater power grid—a number of electric vehicles charging, for example, could be attacked and used to reach the power grid of an entire city.

The power grid supports all critical infrastructure, including oil, natural gas, water, health, transportation, telecommunications, and financial services, which makes protecting it of paramount importance to our nation’s wellbeing.

“We will work to make distributed energy resources, like electric vehicles and HVAC units in buildings, more secure from cyberattacks, while also decreasing vulnerabilities to the power grid,” said Sibin Mohan, ITI and computer science research assistant professor and lead PI at the University of Illinois.

Mohan and his team, including Chaitra Niddodi, a computer science graduate student, are first developing models for ideal operation of many energy systems, including the electric vehicle, and the best practices of how they should connect to the power grid for information and electricity transfer.

“The models will aid in understanding how solar farms, buildings, electric vehicles, and more operate individually, but we’ll also need to understand how they all work together to develop effective cybersecurity strategies,” said Mohan.

Researchers at the University of Illinois aim to make renewable energy resources, such as solar farms, better protected from cyber attacks.
Researchers at the University of Illinois aim to make renewable energy resources, such as solar farms, better protected from cyber attacks.

Once the researchers develop models for how the systems work, they can develop techniques that detect anomalies and vulnerabilities, which will enhance building and grid resiliency to cyberattacks and improve reliability.

Additionally, they will build a software and hardware platform that detects issues as soon as they happen and raise an alarm, or revert to a back-up system that is known to be safe so no further damage can occur.

The team, which includes ITI and ECE Assistant Professor Hao Zhu and ITI Associate Director of Technology Tim Yardley, also aims to provide nonintrusive options to enhance cybersecurity for systems already in place. 

“We’ll first tackle specific systems, like electric vehicles, but the techniques to improve resiliency against attacks can inform a variety of different domains,” said Mohan. “The goal is to protect as many types of emerging and existing renewable energy sources as we can.”