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Researchers Address Cybersecurity Risks with Solar Panels

Dec. 20, 2017

Standardization of solar inverters leaves the electrical grid vulnerable. See how researchers are protecting the grid.

As the number of devices and technologies connected to the electrical grid increases, grid operators and consumers become more vulnerable to cyber intrusions. Rooftop solar panels are among the possible targeted technologies in facilities and are the focus of a new project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The project, which has been awarded up to $2.5 million in funding from the Department of Energy, is 1 of 20 projects addressing the grid and cybersecurity.

Standardization of solar inverters leaves the electrical grid vulnerable.

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The solar industry has grown rapidly in recent years, and solar inverters, which turn the direct current from rooftop solar panels into alternating current that is fed back into the grid, are of particular interest to the Berkeley Lab project. Smart inverters can enhance system reliability and reduce operational costs while allowing PV modules to adjust power levels.

The development of new standards for how solar inverters communicate with the grid is where researchers see potential problems.

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“It is this standardization that presents a vulnerability,” says Daniel Arnold, a Berkeley Lab researcher and engineer who is one of the leads of the project. “As we modernize the grid, our belief is that we, as a society, can enjoy all of the benefits of large amounts of distributed PV, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and a more resilient system, and still have a secure network that is potentially more robust to cyber intrusions than it was before the introduction of large amounts of distributed PV.”

To prevent these cybersecurity issues, researchers at Berkeley Lab will develop algorithms to use the system similarly to how hackers might find a vulnerability but send opposite signals to nullify the attack, similar to the processes that noise-cancelling headphones use.

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“If an attacker tries to manipulate the settings in a number of PV inverters, we’ll observe these manipulations, then identify the settings in PV inverters that have not been hacked, and finally, dispatch the appropriate settings to the inverters deemed safe in order to counter that attack,” explains Arnold.

The researchers will look for irregularities in the physical behavior of the grid, and they will use those insights to determine how hackers might try to breach the grid. The algorithms developed will be able to monitor the grid and provide warnings to utilities when they are open to an attack.

Justin Feit [email protected] is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

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