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URI profs advance research on grid protection

April 25, 2011

Photo By Shaun Kirby The U.S. power grid is run through an electronic system of ‘nodes,’ which distribute power to cities and residential areas.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN- The U.S. power grid is a vast network or substations, transformers, and power lines which branch out across the country, bringing electricity to the appliances and technological devices in our homes.

Professors Yan Sun and Haibo He of the department of Electrical, Computer, and Biomedical Engineering at URI, are generating new research relating to the concept of ‘cascading failures.’ The U.S. power grid is run through an electronic system of ‘nodes,’ which distribute power to the cities and residential areas of the country. A node could be a physical monument, such as a transformer, or it could be a remotely accessed computer system which a regional power company uses to control and monitor its grid.

If a node is the focus of a cyber attack and subsequently shuts down, its power is then shifted to other nodes, causing other nodes to overload, propagating the potential of massive failures within the U.S. power grid. Such an event could debilitate the country.
“If the internet is shut down for a day, it is not that bad,” said Sun. “But the power grid? That would be bad.”

Sun and He have implemented new metrics by which to measure potential targets of cyber attackers upon the power grid. Researchers have often assumed that attacks would occur upon the busiest nodes, or those that contain the highest amounts of power, traditionally measured by voltage and wattage. Through the creation of simulated attacks, Sun and her students have discovered that cyber criminals could more plausibly target nodes with a large Risk If Failure value.

“The RIF value of a node describes its importance to the neighborhood of surrounding nodes and the ‘topography’ of power grids,” said Sun. “If a malicious attacker understands how to attack multiple nodes in a particular order, it is a real threat.”

For more information pick up a copy of The Narragansett Times.

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