On a frigid day in December 2015, more than 230,000 Ukrainian residents lost power for an afternoon. Lights went out, televisions shut off and heaters froze. Their power grid had been hacked.
Malicious hackers pose a legitimate threat to the energy grid, and that’s why the U.S. Department of Energy awarded two Carnegie Mellon University researchers a $400,000 grant to strengthen grid security using blockchain technology.
“Hackers were able to attack the Ukrainian power plants by exploiting a central control system,” said Rahul Panat, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “If that control system was placed on a distributed network – a blockchain – then in theory, pulling off an attack would have been much more difficult.”
Panat’s expertise lies in high temperature sensor networks, much like those that feed information to the Supervisor Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system power plants employ to make decisions, such as how much power to generate and where to send it. Panat will be working alongside Vipul Goyal, an associate professor in the Computer Science Department with experience in blockchain technologies.
“SCADA is a huge center point for attack,” Goyal said. “But if the data from the sensors is placed on a blockchain, then the attacker does not have to attack a single computer, but multiple computers – maybe tens or hundreds of computers depending on how large the blockchain is.”
The researchers will be creating a simulated SCADA system and integrating it onto an eight-node blockchain, a number chosen only for the purposes of experimenting. Panat said the blockchain can scale easily and affordably.
“A simple laptop computer — just $200 or $300 — can be a node on this blockchain,” Panat said. “You don’t need a fancy workstation or supercomputer to do this.”
Although blockchain’s most popular applications — serving as the infrastructure for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum — involve a public ledger that anyone can see, Goyal and Panat’s technology will be mainly private, hiding critical information from everyone — even those inside the company — except for a few authorized employees.
“This hierarchical access control will protect against insider threats in addition to outsiders trying to attack the grid,” Goyal said.
The researchers aim to conclude this project by the end of summer 2021. At that point, they’ll hand a complete prototype of their eight-node blockchain system to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a national lab under the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy.
“If this project was sponsored by one single power generation company, then the solution might remain right there,” Panat said. “By working with a national lab like NETL, it can be a benefit to the entire nation.”