Innovating at the Speed of Cyber Threats

By Juan Torres, Associate Laboratory Director, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Cybersecurity threats to our energy systems are evolving. And, of all the potential targets, our aging electric grid infrastructure could be among the most vulnerable. Most concerning, cyber adversaries are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their attacks.

To combat this, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have launched the Clean Energy Cybersecurity Accelerator — a technology-accelerating program for deploying modern energy security by design.

This accelerator allows utilities and companies to replicate real-life threats without any chance for harm to customers. Such a visionary approach addresses our current cyber technology innovation challenges without delaying time to market. During recent cyber escalations, we’ve seen threats such as the proliferation of malware that caused disruptions to a significant part of our nation’s energy infrastructure.

For example, the May 7 ransomware attack earlier this year on Colonial Pipeline forced the company to halt its pipeline operations, impacting businesses and consumers. This is just one example of a type of critical threat that must become one of the accelerator’s topic priorities.

To address the highest-priority threats, the accelerator will forge public-private partnerships among utilities, solution providers, our laboratory research staff, and DOE. Through this combined effort, NREL’s Clean Energy Cybersecurity Accelerator is designed to:

· Bridge startups’ paths to venture capital and direct-to-market commercialization by providing non-proprietary replicas of electric utilities in a cyber environment

· Leverage private and public threat information to prioritize critical cybersecurity solutions that are urgently needed in the market

· Allow electric utilities to share the cost and risk of cybersecurity solution evaluations

· Maximize cost-sharing between private sector funding for technology acceleration and government funding for incubation operations

· Provide an environment where all technologies can be evaluated with realistic power, control, and network layers subject to realistic adversaries.

The NREL Cyber Range Is Unique

We will conduct threat evaluations using NREL’s Cyber Range, a unique research environment capable of generating virtual energy systems and a variety of security threat scenarios, threat analysis, and evaluation. As part of NREL’s Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) platform, NREL’s Cyber Range makes it possible to:

· Safely explore cyber vulnerabilities and mitigation strategies

· Perform cybersecurity research for future energy systems at the 20+ MW level

· Evaluate proactive defense and automated response

· Improve situational awareness for cybersecurity

· Advance telecommunication technology innovation

· Accelerate workforce development and training.

Building With Cohorts

A key approach will be to form topic-specific cohorts made up of selected startups.

The accelerator will provide vouchered national laboratory staff to assess the performance of a startup’s solution. Each cohort topic will tackle threat- and vulnerability-driven priorities determined by the private and public stakeholders.

Private sector stakeholders will pick between three and five startup companies to participate in a given accelerator program, which could be as short as three months or last a year. The urgency and complexity of the topic will determine the length of the program.

Cohort cycle teams will evaluate cyber solutions based on the results of stress tests performed on the Cyber Range. NREL will provide results in a written report, which we will keep confidential with the startup, researchers, and private-public stakeholders.

The prioritization of threats and evaluation of solutions won’t be done in a vacuum.

A private sector Execution Steering Committee and a federal Operations Advisory Board will ensure that the accelerator rapidly deploys high-priority solutions to the electric sector. The committee draws from five to 10 electric utilities committed to improving the security design of the future grid system.

Additionally, representatives from DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) and the department’s Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (EERE) will make up the board, which is responsible for reviewing and approving a multiyear strategy.

We can’t predict what our foes will do next. But this accelerator is a significant opportunity for NREL and our partners to design and build in security to the energy system. The NREL Clean Energy Cybersecurity Accelerator is a timely initiative intended to strengthen our capabilities and keep our electric grid strong.



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