Security and Resilience (Cyber and Physical)

Oak Ridge National Lab Tests Blockchain to Protect Grid Against Cyberattacks

In an effort to protect against cyberattacks and improve resiliency, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have used blockchain to validate communication among devices on the electric grid.

The ORNL researchers said they used tamper-resistant blockchain to spread configuration and operational data redundantly across multiple servers. The data and equipment settings are constantly verified against a statistical baseline of normal voltage, frequency, breaker status and power quality. The equipment settings are collected at frequent intervals and compared with the last good configuration saved in the blockchain, allowing rapid recognition of when and how settings were changed, whether those changes were authorized, and what caused them, the researchers explained.

Processing the vast amount of data needed to monitor the status of the electric grid is well suited to blockchain technology, which uses a cryptographic method called hashing, where a mathematical computation is performed on bulk data to represent it as numbers in the blockchain. Hashing saves energy and reduces the space needed to store data and enables the blockchain to processes thousands of transactions per second for each intelligent grid device, ORNL said.

ORNL is using the blockchain framework it developed to detect unusual activity, including data manipulation, spoofing, and illicit changes to device settings that could trigger cascading power outages as breakers are tripped by protection devices.

The researchers demonstrated their framework in a test bed within the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Grid Research Integration and Deployment Center at ORNL, which uses commercial grade hardware in a closed electrical loop to mimic the architecture of a real substation. ORNL says that approach allows the researches to simulate cyberattacks or accidental misconfigurations in a low risk manner. The ORNL researchers said they are extending the approach to incorporate communications among renewable energy sources and multiple utilities.

The risk of cyberattacks increases as two-way communications between grid power electronics equipment and devices ranging from solar panels to electric car chargers and intelligent home electronics increases, ORNL noted.

“Our system helps determine in near real time whether a fault was triggered by a cyberattack or induced by natural events,” said Raymond Borges Hink, leader of the ORNL research team. “This is the first implementation of blockchain enabling this kind of data validation between a substation, a control center and metering infrastructure.”

The blockchain project is part of the Darknet initiative being led by ORNL and funded by the DOE’s Office of Electricity that aims to secure the nation’s electricity infrastructure by shifting its communications to increasingly secure methods.