The POWER Interview: Solving the Challenges Facing the Grid

The power generation industry continues to grapple with a multitude of challenges when it comes to producing more electricity, and to ensure that power is delivered where and when it is needed.

There is pressure to integrate more renewable energy resources to help meet net-zero targets and other decarbonization goals. Electrification efforts, notably from the transportation sector, are driving increased demand for electricity.

The need to upgrade aging transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure looms over everything—a problem exacerbated by extreme weather and other threats to the grid.

Research conducted by the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University has helped identify threats to the grid, and what fixes could be required of software in T&D systems, along with the susceptibilities in the firmware used in these networks.

Farshad Khorrami, a professor in Tandon’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department, and his team of researchers set out to develop a digital twin, known as Digital Twin for Security and Code Verification, or DISCOVER, which helps researchers analyze and evaluate updates to software and firmware prior to actually applying them to real-world systems.

The NYU project is a recipient of a three-year Department of Energy grant totaling $4.8 million. It provides an example of how prioritizing preventive cybersecurity is a vitally needed infrastructure investment to ensure the resilience of America’s energy sector including the power grid, utilities, pipelines, and renewable energy resources.

Khorrami, along with Dr. Francisco de Leon, NYU Tandon Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, recently provided POWER with insight and information about their work, and the challenges facing the power grid.

POWER: What are the biggest problems facing today’s electricity transmission and distribution (T&D) systems?

de Leon: There are two challenges that distribution systems are facing. First is a high penetration of solar generation, which produces bi-directional power flows in a system that was designed solely for power to flow downstream (generator to load). The protection system needs to be updated but this is expensive and will take years (if not decades) to implement. In the meantime utilities could be forced to curtail the amount of power generated from solar projects.

Secondly, a large number of EV [electric vehicle] charging stations can produce overloads if left uncontrolled. A low power charger (level 1, from 1 to 1.8 kW) doubles the nightly demand of a typical house. A high power charger (level 3, from 30 to 360 kW) multiplies the demand by a factor as large as 100 (and therefore not suitable for home installation). The transformers feeding the most typical residential EV charger at level 2 (from 3 kW to 22 kW) may not be able to support two neighbors charging simultaneously. If the transformers are upgraded, the feeders may not be able to support hundreds of EVs charging uncoordinated.

The most concerning challenge that transmission systems are facing is the substitution of high-inertia traditional generation (driven by heavy steam and hydraulic turbines) by low-inertia solar and wind farms. This may produce instability problems (yielding to blackouts) if not properly addressed. A new paradigm to control power systems is approaching. Renewable resources offer better and faster controllability but the number of controllers increases dramatically, say from today at tens of thousands of controlling entities to tens of millions in the not-so-distant future. I foresee that backouts would be more frequent but their range and duration will be reduced when compared to today’s conditions.

Khorrami: A crucial challenge in both transmission and distribution is the development and deployment of robust cybersecurity systems that can defend against malicious actors that seek to undermine stability or performance or cause economic impacts. Critical attack vectors include untrustworthy hardware/software supply chains and advanced persistent threats (APTs) that use social engineering and zero-day vulnerabilities to gain footholds into protected networks and laterally move to attack sensitive nodes. For example, in the context of Real Time Automation Controllers (RTACs), Remote Terminal Unit (RTUs), and protection relays, their remote reprogrammability/reconfigurability features and wide potential impact on power grid stability and performance make them likely targets for attacks. Truly effective cybersecurity solutions will need to be able to scale to the complexities of the current and evolving cyber-physical power grid, provide resilient defense against a vast array of vulnerabilities/attacks, and operate fast enough to detect dynamic threats.

POWER: What types of equipment are in the most critical need of upgrades?

de Leon: 1) Protection systems of distribution systems.
2) Pole-mounted distribution transformers (25 to 150 kVA).
3) Large power transformers (with 100s MVA) are also critical but not because of the changes in generation and electrification of transportation but because there are very few manufacturers and the lead time is several years.

Khorrami: 1) Automation and protection equipment such as RTACs/RTUs and relays.
2) Sensors such as Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs), data concentrators, historian systems.
3) Communication protocols (many based on legacy protocols that were designed without focusing explicitly on security).

POWER: What types of technology (sensors, etc.) should be added as part of any grid upgrades?

de Leon: The current generalized installation of smart meters is making good progress. The issue is what to do with all the newly available data. The distribution system is becoming observable. The transmission system has PMUs (Phasor Measurement Units) in every important substation. Thus the transmission system is already observable. However, I am not aware of any blackout prevented because of this.

Hardening of the power system against natural disasters would be the most effective use of resources. Most blackouts today are produced by natural events (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.). Unfortunately, power system hardening is very expensive and we never know where and when the next event will occur.

Khorrami: Robust multi-layer cybersecurity is a crucial element for grid upgrades. This will include addressing of multiple needs such as, for example, verification of integrity of physical/digital artifacts pre-deployment, continuous monitoring during system operation, and rapid attack detection and mitigation (e.g., isolation of compromised devices, rerouting on both cyber and power layers to bypass compromised segments).

POWER: Who should be responsible for paying for T&D upgrades—the grid operator; the utility or utilities using the systems; or government entities?

de Leon: Utilities should be responsible for the upgrades. But it is always the consumer who pays for all upgrades. There is some socialization of the expenses associated with upgrades because we pay (almost) a flat rate for electrical energy but eventually all the money comes from the consumers.

Khorrami: Some level of sharing of costs between all the entities involved (utilities, grid operators, Government) would likely be the most effective depending on the particular upgrades being performed.

POWER: Would it be possible for private enterprise to invest in power grids, much as some private companies have taken over management of toll roads?

de Leon: It is possible and recommended in most cases to have private enterprises invest in power grids but left unchecked the private sector will always look at maximizing its profits. Therefore, there would be no power in regions of the country where it is expensive to run lines or install microgrids. The regulators need to intervene as they do today.

Khorrami: Yes, private enterprise can invest in the power grids. Upgrades will benefit all stakeholders and there will be multiple avenues for successful involvement of private enterprise.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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