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Improving Power Grid Cybersecurity

Illinois Research Efforts Spark Improvements in Power Grid Cybersecurity.

The Information Trust Institute (ITI) at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign has a broad research portfolio. In addition to its work as a Science of Security Lablet where it is contributing broadly to the development of security science in resiliency—a system's ability to maintain security properties during ongoing cyber attacks—ITI has been working on issues related to the electric power infrastructure and the development of a stronger, more resilient power grid.

The Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIPG) project is a partnership among Illinois, Dartmouth, Arizona State, and Washington State Universities, as well as government and industry. Formed to meet challenges related to the health of the underlying computing and communication network infrastructure at serious risk from malicious attacks on grid components and networks, and accidental causes, such as natural disasters, misconfiguration, or operator errors, they continually collaborate with the national laboratories and the utility sector to protect the U.S. power grid by significantly improving the way the power grid infrastructure is designed, making it more secure, resilient, and safe.

TCIPG comprises several dozen researchers, students, and staff who bring interdisciplinary expertise essential to the operation and public adoption of current and future grid systems. That expertise extends to power engineering; computer science and engineering; advanced communications and networking; smart grid markets and economics; and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education.

Ten years ago, the electricity sector was largely “security-unaware.”  More recently, and thanks in part to TCIPG, there has been broad adoption of security best practices. That transition came about from breakthrough research, national expert panels, and in writing key documents. However, because the threat landscape continuously evolves, resiliency in a dynamic environment is key and an area where continuous improvement is needed.

TCIPG Research in Smart Grid Resiliency

Countering threats to the nation’s cyber systems in critical infrastructure such as the power grid has become a major strategic objective and was identified as such in Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7. Smart grid technologies promise advances in efficiency, reliability, integration of renewable energy sources, customer involvement, and new markets. But to achieve those benefits, the grid must rely on a cyber-measurement and control infrastructure that includes components ranging from smart appliances at customer premises to automated generation control. Control systems and administrative systems no longer have an air gap; security between the two has become more complicated and complex.

TCIPG research has produced important results and innovative technologies in addressing that need and the complexity by focusing on the following areas:

  • Detecting and responding to cyber attacks and adverse events, as well as incident management of these events.
  • Securing of the wide-area measurement system on which the smart grid relies.
  • Maintaining power quality and integrating renewables at multiple scales in a dynamic environment.
  • Advanced testbeds for experiments and simulation using actual power system hardware “in the loop.”

Much of this work has been achieved because of the success of the experimental testbed.

Testbed Cross-Cutting Research

Experimental validation is critical for emerging research and technologies. The TCIPG testbed enables researchers to conduct, validate, and evolve cyber-physical research from fundamentals to prototype, and finally, transition to practice.  It provides a combination of emulation, simulation, and real hardware to realize a large-scale, virtual environment that is measurable, repeatable, flexible, and adaptable to emerging technology while maintaining integration with legacy equipment. Its capabilities span the entire power grid: transmission, distribution & metering, distributed generation, and home automation and control – providing true end-to-end capabilities for the smart grid.

The cyber-physical testbed facility uses a mixture of commercial power system equipment and software, hardware and software simulation, and emulation to create a realistic representation of the smart grid. This representation can be used to experiment with next-generation technologies that span communications from generation to consumption and everything in between. In addition to offering a realistic environment, the testbed facility is instrumented with cutting-edge research and commercial tools to explore problems from multiple dimensions, tackling in-depth security analysis and testing, visualization and data mining, and federated resources, and developing novel techniques that integrate these systems in a composable way.

A parallel project funded by the State of Illinois, the Illinois Center for a Smarter Electric Grid (ICSEG), is a 5-year project to develop and operate a facility to provide services for the validation of information technology and control aspects of Smart Grid systems, including micro grids and distributed energy resources. The key objective of this project is to test and validate in a laboratory setting how new and more cost-effective Smart Grid technologies, tools, techniques, and system configurations can be used in trustworthy configurations to significantly improve those in common practice today. The laboratory is also a resource for Smart Grid equipment suppliers and integrators and electric utilities to allow validation of system designs before deployment.

Education and Outreach

In addition to basic research, TCIPG has addressed needs in education and outreach.  Nationally, there is a shortage of professionals who can fill positions in the power sector. Skills required for smart grid engineers have changed dramatically. Graduates of the collaborating TCIPG universities are well-prepared to join the cyber-aware grid workforce as architects of the future grid, as practicing professionals, and as educators.

TCIPG has conducted short courses for practicing engineers and for DOE program managers. In addition to a biennial TCIPG Summer School for university students and researchers, utility and industry representatives, and government and regulatory personnel, TCIPG organizes a monthly webinar series featuring thought leaders in cyber security and resiliency in the electricity sector. In alignment with national STEM educational objectives, TCIPG conducts extensive STEM outreach to K-12 students and teachers. TCIPG has developed interactive, open-ended apps (iOS, Android, MinecraftEdu) for middle-school students, along with activity materials and teacher guides to facilitate integration of research, education, and knowledge transfer by linking researchers, educators, and students.

The electricity industry in the U.S. is made up of thousands of utilities, equipment and software vendors, consultants, and regulatory bodies. In both its NSF-funded and DOE/DHS-funded phases, TCIPG has actively developed extensive relationships with such entities and with other researchers in the sector, including joint research with several national laboratories.

The involvement of industry and other partners in TCIPG is vital to its success, and is facilitated by an extensive Industry Interaction Board (IIB) and a smaller External Advisory Board (EAB). The EAB, with which TCIPG interacts closely, includes representatives from the utility sector, system vendors, and regulatory bodies, in addition to DOE-OE and DHS S&T.

Partnerships & Impact

While university-led, TCIPG has always stressed real-world impact and industry partnerships.That is why TCIPG technologies have been adopted by the private sector.

  • Several TCIPG technologies have been or are currently deployed on a pilot basis in real utility environments.
  • A leading equipment vendor adopted TCIPG advanced technologies for securing embedded systems in grid controls.
  • Three startup companies in various stages of launch employ TCIPG foundational technologies.


William H. Sanders, Principal Investigator and Illinois Site Lead

Director: Professor William H. Sanders, who is also Co-PI for the UIUC Science of Security Lablet

Personal web page:


Recent publications arising from TCIPG’s work:

  • CPINDEX: Cyber-Physical Vulnerability Assessment for Power-Grid Infrastructures
  • Real Time Modeling and Simulation of Cyber-Power System
  • A Hybrid Network IDS for Protective Digital Relays in the Power Transmission Grid
  • Power system analysis criteria-based computational efficiency enhancement for power flow and transient stability
  • Cyber Physical Security for Power Grid Protection
  • An Analysis of Graphical Authentication Techniques for Mobile Platforms as Alternatives to Passwords
  • Portunes: Privacy-Preserving Fast Authentication for Dynamic Electric Vehicle Charging
  • Secure Data Collection in Constrained Tree-Based Smart Grid Environments
  • Practical and Secure Machine-to-Machine Data Collection Protocol in Smart Grid
  • Searchable Encrypted Mobile Meter
  • Context-sensitive Key Management for Smart Grid Telemetric Devices


(ID#: 15-5941)


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