A wide range of industries fall under the umbrella of critical infrastructure, and they are all—as the name implies—critical. From energy production and water treatment to transportation and data storage, everything within critical infrastructure serves an essential purpose when it comes to the continued functioning of the nation. Unfortunately, that makes critical infrastructure sites a high-value target for wrongdoers ranging from individual criminals (cyber or otherwise) to nation-state actors bent on sabotage and destruction.
Recent Microsoft research indicates that attacks on critical infrastructure have doubled over the past year, highlighting how important it is to protect these sites. Last year’s Colonial Pipeline attack served as a wake-up call for many in the energy industry, underscoring both the difficulty of securing its sprawling assets and the consequences of failing to do so. And these incidents are not limited to cyberattacks: the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a government agency tasked with protecting critical infrastructure, recently released an informational guide on the continued convergence of physical security and cybersecurity, and the need for both to work together.
Fortunately, these many warnings have not fallen on deaf ears. Many within the energy industry have taken the opportunity to fortify their security capabilities using modern solutions that have also helped them increase efficiency and lower their overall operating costs. Investing in security is essential amid today’s increasingly dangerous threat landscape, but, as organizations like Elera Renováveis have discovered, those investments can often have a positive impact on the business’s bottom line.
The Challenges of Solar Farms and Other Energy Sites
Solar farms face a number of unique challenges, and Elera Renováveis properties are no exception. Solar farms tend to be sprawling, covering a significant area, and many are situated in remote locations, far from cities and towns. Unfortunately, this makes them difficult to secure—which is, no doubt, why they are popular targets for would-be vandals and thieves looking for an easy mark. Perimeter security is an option, but when your perimeter is miles long, it simply isn’t possible to monitor the required number of cameras manually.
This was Elera Renováveis’s problem when the organization acquired UFV Alex, one of the largest solar collection projects in Brazil. The UFV Alex property covers more than 2,000 acres (roughly 800 football fields), with an eight-mile perimeter. At its peak, it generates about 360 MW of power—enough for nearly 250,000 homes—which means a security incident at the facility could have serious ramifications for the region’s power grid. With critical infrastructure sites around the world facing increasing threats, improving security at the site was a top priority for Elera Renováveis.
As recently as a few years ago, a security consultant might have recommended an array of fixed cameras with video analytics. After mapping the terrain, preset surveillance cameras would be installed at intervals of 164 feet to ensure maximum coverage. Unfortunately, with an 8-mile perimeter, this would necessitate 273 cameras to effectively cover the entire length. What’s more, those cameras would be strictly for perimeter security, with little ability to monitor the interior of the property. The cost of purchasing and installing—let alone managing—such a large number of cameras would be prohibitive. The personnel needed to monitor such a large number of video feeds would further complicate the matter.
This is a common problem for solar farms, but it is broadly applicable to the energy industry as a whole. Remote mining or refining sites, miles of pipeline, unmanned wind farms and hydroelectric dams, and other energy-related properties pose a particular challenge to secure, and traditional, analog cameras are simply not practical at the required scale. Recognizing this, Elera Renováveis sought out new solutions capable of leveraging the improved processing speeds and analytics capabilities of modern surveillance devices.
Modern Surveillance Tools in Action
The purpose of a modern surveillance system isn’t just to capture incidents on video. Analog cameras could do that perfectly well—but reviewing video after an incident has occurred is no longer enough. Yes, forensic analysis is still important, but today’s security teams expect more. They don’t just want to send recorded footage to law enforcement. They want to know when incidents are happening in real time so they can respond to them as they happen—or, in some cases, prevent them from occurring at all. For critical infrastructure sites, the ability to deter criminal activity is often more valuable than catching the culprits on camera.
Since deploying hundreds of cameras was not a viable option for Elera Renováveis, the organization opted to go a different, more efficient route. Instead of 273 fixed cameras, Elera Renováveis installed 16 pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) cameras integrated with fiber optic cable discreetly buried along the fence line of the property. This highly sensitive cable is excellent at detecting intrusions and is accurate to within eight feet. This means that when a potential intruder is detected, the coordinates can be immediately relayed to the video management system (VMS), and the nearest PTZ camera can use the geolocation data to automatically change its field of view to provide visual confirmation of the situation. This happens automatically, without the need for operator intervention, ensuring minimal response time and confirming the facts on the ground as quickly as possible.
This means security personnel on the premises can be instantly informed when a potential situation is unfolding, and within seconds can confirm whether the incident is legitimate or a false alarm. This is more critical than it may sound. Alert fatigue is a genuine problem for many security teams, who may become annoyed by alarms being set off by, for example, wildlife wandering too close to a fence. Too many alerts can lead to security teams tuning them out, which makes the ability to quickly and easily confirm whether an alert has been triggered by a curious deer or a genuine intruder extremely valuable. When security teams can have faith that the alerts they receive are legitimate, they can devote the proper attention and resources to rectifying the situation.
Of course, security incidents often happen at night, and at a relatively remote location with little lighting, the ability to see in darkness was also essential for Elera Renováveis. Because of the spacing of the cameras, Elera Renováveis elected to use devices equipped with long-range infrared illuminators capable of capturing clear, sharp images more than a third of a mile away, even in near-total darkness. These heavy-duty cameras are also designed to withstand extreme weather conditions and high winds, meaning that no matter the time of day or situation on the ground, the solar farm is protected by surveillance devices capable of providing clear visibility for the entire property.
Going Beyond Security
Elera Renováveis also prioritized factors beyond just security capabilities. It elected to go with devices known for their low power consumption—an important factor, since the power available at a solar farm after dark can be both limited and costly—which, combined with the limited number of devices being used, kept energy costs reasonable. The organization also chose to prioritize devices with long expected lifespans. Given that solar projects generally have a useful life of approximately 20 to 25 years, selecting cameras expected to last 10 or more years ensures that device changeover will be kept to a minimum for the lifespan of the project. Not only does that keep costs down, it also minimizes disruption to the project.
Another factor Elera Renováveis considered was the durability of the devices they selected. By opting for heavy-duty cameras designed to operate under extreme adverse conditions, the organization could ensure that the devices would continue to operate effectively with little need for maintenance. Because the UFV Alex location is far from any major center, frequent maintenance or device replacement needs would be inconvenient at best and disastrous at worst. Elera Renováveis did not want to contend with the expense or potentially significant downtime associated with sending repair teams to the remote solar farm—it just wanted the equipment to function reliably.
This desire for efficiency and reliability also factored into the decision to use a smaller number of more capable cameras. The fewer devices in use, the less cabling and infrastructure required to install, maintain, and operate them. This is another factor that not only reduces expenses, but it also reduces the possibility of something going wrong. Elera Renováveis estimates that its modern solution saved roughly 3.5 tons of copper cable and almost 1.8 tons of PVC piping—ensuring that the system didn’t just keep costs low over time but kept upfront costs reasonable as well.
Moving Forward with Modern Solutions
The UFV Alex site is the first solar project in the world integrating fiber-optics detection with georeferencing capability, and the success of the project has led Elera Renováveis to standardize the solution for all similar endeavors in the future. Integrating different detection solutions with PTZ cameras, geolocation data, and advanced low-light vision capabilities has changed the way Elera Renováveis approaches security, even at its most remote locations. And the positive impact on the company’s bottom line that today’s durable, efficient, and reliable cameras have had means that truly advanced security capabilities aren’t just for the wealthiest organizations—they are increasingly affordable and accessible to all.
—Joe Morgan is business development manager for Critical Infrastructure with Axis Communications.