November 2017

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ESIF and Security at the Edge of Smart Grids

ESIF names the Energy Systems Integration Facility. The workshop demonstrated both what should be done to secure future energy systems, and how difficult, labor-intensive, and non-scalable this is using standard practice.

Toby ConsidineToby Considine
TC9 Inc

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I attended the NREL ESIF Cybersecurity Workshop last month. ESIF names the Energy Systems Integration Facility. The workshop demonstrated both what should be done to secure future energy systems, and how difficult, labor-intensive, and non-scalable this is using standard practice.

The first morning showed off the ESIF’s model of how to secure the un-securable. Using a rat’s nest of proprietary products, all communications to and from every sensor were firewalled, and only specific interactions enabled. No messages were encrypted so every message could be inspected for appropriateness. The security infrastructure was itself secured and logged.

The rest of the conference aimed at specific interoperable approaches to accomplish the goals of securing Operational Technology or OT.

Part of the problem with securing OT is a fundamentally outmoded approach to operation. At a time when computing was expensive, phone lines cheap, and data logging infrequent, a model developed of putting every sensor and every actuator directly connected to a single computer. This model has long been named SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition).

Two things happened to break the SCADA model. Phone companies moved out of the business of providing actual wires to connect sites and moved toward shared networks. SCADA systems have never been fully secure in shared networks. Systems became more complex and required a faster response. In power distribution, this is due to a combination of smaller operating margins (excess power available at every moment), more systems to control, including smart meters, and the arrival of distributed energy resources (DER).

As we move further into DER, we will see more diversity in ownership and in technology.

An owner of an expensive power production or storage system in a microgrid will want to operate it for their own benefit. As sophisticated owners add their own local monitoring and control software, they will begin to see how often remote operators miss operate the locally-owned equipment, increasing maintenance requirements while shortening its life.

Distributed ownership and operation will also move toward diverse technology. A local owner will make his own investment decisions, and a remote operator such as a distribution utility may not know how to operate it. From the earliest efforts by utilities to tell owners to operate buildings, following the energy price shocks of 1973, we have seen smart people forget that the primary purpose of a building system is not to provide a managed load. (Consider the role of energy “efficiency” recommendations that did not consider health implications of short cycling HVAC in a Philadelphia Hotel in 1976).

The future of smart grids is on edge, in autonomous systems that are built around a deep understanding of each buildings role and services. Edge based-operation offers both challenges and benefits to security. Incorporating systems with different ownership, and operated for different purposes makes security more complex. For now, regulatory mandates require that utilities still maintain detailed situation awareness into edge-based microgrids. Abstract interactions, including those based on the common transactive services, simplify security while reducing the attack surface. We will be rebalancing this border continually over the next decade.

The solution is abstract interactions between autonomous systems that can be locally operated and maintained. In power markets, this means that systems can negotiate whether to provide power or not or to purchase power or not, while the inner workings of each system remain private. The interaction between the grid and a wind farm that occasionally sells power to the grid and a district associate that never buys power but occasionally sells it should be identical. Large system integration relies on integration using abstract communications, that is, the exchange of information that does not change often. Fragile or concrete information, such as the specific internal operations that are directly affected by changes in technology or equipment, are kept internal to the systems. This approach to integration is characterized by an “anti-fragile pattern.”

Control Solutions, Inc Until we reduce the attack surface, how will we increase security while increasing interaction? The ESIF security model requires too much hand-work and does not support multiple ownership.

The Security Fabric Alliance has spent four years defining a more forward-looking approach within the Object Management Group (OMG). OMG specifications are cookbooks for interoperable implementations of complex combinations of specifications by multiple vendors. The OMG Security Fabric, due out in February in 2018, incorporates best practices in military telemetry with directory-enabled security. Any communications must mutually authenticate before exchanging information. Despite this requirement, the Security Fabric has already been demonstrated in synchrophasor telemetry, a high volume, high-frequency application. I look to the Fabric appearing in microgrids at the edge soon after its initial release.

Other efforts incorporate technologies to reduce wide area communications requirements and the effort to require detailed point-to-point security. Blockchain-style distributed immutable databases will replace some requirements for remote data harvesting, and perhaps move into directory services to support security and policy. Edge-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) will reduce the manual set-up required for point-to-point and message-content based rules. I hope to write about these approaches later.


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