Microgrids to Support the Cyber Resilience of the Electric System

By Aleksi Paaso, Daniel Kushner & Shay Bahramirad

In our increasingly connected digital world, the increasing frequency of cyber-attacks is not just a problem for computers; it affects the physical systems upon which we rely on daily, especially the power grid that energizes our world. A community microgrid demonstration project now under construction in Chicago may represent a significant step forward in mitigating such cyber-physical security challenges, in addition to enhancing grid sustainability and resiliency.

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security said that hackers associated with Russia gained access to the control rooms of US electric utilities, getting “to the point where they could have thrown switches” to disrupt the flow of power. The Industrial Control Systems Computer Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT), an organization within the Department of Homeland Security, reported 59 incidents targeted against the energy sector in 2016, with a 28 percent increase from 2015. In 2015, 30 Ukrainian substations were shut off, leaving more than 225,000 residents without power, as the result of a cyber-attack credited to a Russian hacking group.

As part of the Utility of the Future project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a paper dealing with cyber threats identified microgrids as a technology that can mitigate this challenge. Microgrids are portions of the electric grid that are served by distributed energy resources (DER) including solar panels or energy storage. They can typically provide power to the customers that they serve either as part of the wider grid to which they are interconnected, or in “island” mode. By doing so during a cyber incident, or other emergency, microgrids not only continue providing power to crucial areas, but can even re-start the electric grid after the threat is stopped.

Recognizing the resiliency benefits of microgrids, the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Energy (DOE) implemented a project to install three demonstration microgrids in 2015 at two military bases in Hawaii and one in Colorado. Additional microgrids will be installed on other military locations serving 304 MW of load by 2022, according to Greentech Media.

But military bases are not the only facilities that need to protect their electric service from cyber-physical threats. In February 2018, Chicago-based ComEd, the nation’s fourth largest electric utility, received approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission to install a community microgrid in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. The microgrid is a central feature of the Bronzeville Community of the Future where ComEd is collaborating with residents and community leaders to identify opportunities to leverage the smart grid technology that has been installed in recent years as one of the largest smart meter deployments in the nation. This microgrid will serve an estimated 1,060 customers, including critical facilities such as the headquarters of the Chicago Fire and Police Departments. In addition, this project will demonstrate an innovative clustering capability of the microgrid master controller, which will be able to optimize the deployment of resources between the Bronzeville Community Microgrid (BCM) and an adjacent microgrid serving the Illinois Institute of Technology – resulting in the nation’s first utility-operated microgrid cluster. In the event of a crisis that impacts the main grid, the microgrid cluster could create an oasis where emergency responders could deploy resources like medicine and fresh food and provide shelter, providing significant new levels of resilience in the community and surrounding area.

Because the BCM is a demonstration project, ComEd is using the opportunity to develop enhanced abilities that will support cyber-physical security throughout the grid. This includes protecting against bad data injections. If grid operators are presented with an incorrect understanding of the condition of the system, as a result of bad data, then grid operators might make decisions that produce negative real-world impacts on customers in the service area, and possibly beyond. The BCM project will address this challenge as well.

ComEd will be installing Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs) into the BCM. Most of the sensors installed traditionally on the electric grid, such as in SCADA systems, provide data within periods of every few seconds to every minute or even every half hour, as in case of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems. PMUs provide data at a minimum 60 times per second (for the 60Hz US electricity system), about the voltage, current, frequency and other conditions of the grid. Even more critically for cyber-physical security concerns, this data is time-stamped, which could make it easier to confirm whether any data coming from different sensors installed on the grid has been interfered with by those seeking to commit a cyber-attack.

This data, whether from PMUs or other sensors, can inform even more significant applications. One of the capabilities that ComEd intends to develop as part of the Bronzeville Microgrid Project is distribution state estimation. This technology not only enables the reduction in the number of voltage violations and the amount of overloaded equipment, improving the reliability of the grid, but also has the capability to identify and even potentially correct bad measurements in real time, whether due to malfunctioning equipment, or by malicious actors, thereby supporting the cyber-physical security of the grid.

ComEd Bronzeville Community Microgrid is an acknowledgement that as the grid becomes more distributed due to the increased penetration of technologies like solar PV and electric vehicles, efforts to secure it must be equally distributed. For all of the promise of DER, as they are interconnected to the grid, there is a need for technologies that can mitigate the challenge of cyber-attacks that interfere with the signals emanating from these devices to grid operators. ComEd is using the BCM as a platform to develop and demonstrate technologies that can meet any of these challenges. The project includes a collaboration with Virginia Tech University on a project funded by the Department of Energy to develop and install Extremely Fast Charging (XFC) EV charging stations within the footprint of the BCM. This technology will make sure that the infrastructure is not only cybersecure in terms of its communications, but cyber-physically secure, ensuring that cyber-attacks will not harm the broader electrical system and those who rely upon it.

For a downloadable copy of the January 2019 eNewsletterwhich includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center  

Aleksi Paaso


Daniel Kushner

Shay Bahramirad

Dr. Shay Bahramirad serves as a strategic business leader in Commonwealth Edison, the electric utility serving Northern Illinois including Chicago, working on the 21st century power grid transformation and the new energy economy. She holds executive responsibility for ComEd’s vision of the grid of the future, ComEd system reliability, engineering, and planning, as well as developing frameworks for emerging technology roadmaps and investment strategies. Bahramirad is an IEEE Senior Member, an Editorial Board Member of Electricity Journal, an Adjunct Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the IEEE/PES Vice President of New Initiatives and Outreach, overseeing the organization’s engagement with policy makers globally, and developing strategies for next generation of standards and frameworks, including Smart Cities.

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