Sensors, Smart Power and Cyber Security: Q&A with Clarkson's Amir Mousavian

“Power systems and all other critical resources should be monitored in real-time using state-of-the-art sensors and technologies.”

Dr. Amir Mousavian, Clarkson Assistant Professor of Engineering & Management, is leading a team from Clarkson and Auburn Universities that researches protection of the cyber security of the nation’s electric power grid.

Most of us have an old-fashioned idea of how electricity reaches our homes: a power plant burns fuel to create steam that turns turbines that produce electricity distributed by wires to our communities. We are only partly wrong. Increasingly, the generation and distribution of electricity is a creature of the cyber world. Let’s begin with this Department of Energy video recommended by Dr. Mousavian:

Dr. Mousavian’s research is featured on the IEEE Xplore Innovation Spotlight, which reports on new research published in some of the world’s most highly cited journals in electrical engineering, computer science, communications, power and energy, and other technology areas.

Innovations in sensors and real-time monitoring, such as Beacon Institute’s River and Estuary Observatory Network, are rapidly changing how we manage and protect resources, from water supplies to food systems to energy. We asked Dr. Mousavian about the promise, and vulnerabilities, of the coming smart grid era of energy distribution and management.

Watermark: Like most 21st century systems, a smart power grid will be vulnerable in unprecedented ways. How is your research aimed at assuring its security?

Dr. Mousavian: Smart grid is the future of the supply chain of electricity and it is approaching very fast. Hence, it is critical to think about potential worst scenarios in advance when we are still at the modeling and designing stage. In my research, I look for security shortcomings of the power grid and try to develop models/solutions to prevent cyber-attacks, detect cyber-attacks or mitigate the risk and damage of a cyber-attack in case it happens. I also conduct research on the investment aspects of the smart grid as well and try to determine optimal investment decisions which provide power grid developers with higher reliability and security while minimizing the investment costs.

Watermark: What is the role of sensors and real-time monitoring in protection of the grid from cyber attacks?”

Dr. Mousavian: From a cyber-security point of view, sensors such as smart meters and PMUs (phasor measurement units) provide us with real-time data. Thus, power grid operators can be informed of and respond to malicious cyber-attacks way earlier to prevent the cyber-attack or lower the damage to power grid. In one of my papers, I have shown that a cyber-attack can lead to overloaded transmission lines and cause physical damages to the power grid. With the real-time monitoring, we are minimizing the damages of cyber-attacks both cyber-wise and physical-wise.

“The new challenge is how to process these tremendous data to find meaningful and valuable information.”

Watermark: Secure distribution of electricity when and where it is needed is best accomplished with instantaneous information. The same can be said of other resources, drinking water, for example. Yet, in some cases we must still wait days for analyses of virulent pathogens that may have already contaminated a supply. Help us understand better the fundamental role of real-time information in 21st century society.

Dr. Mousavian: I do see a great need in real-time monitoring of these vital resources. Please be advised that collecting data used to be a huge problem, but it is very trivial nowadays. In most industries, the new challenge is how to process these tremendous data to find meaningful and valuable information. In power system, we deal with the same “Big Data” problem as well since everything can be monitored in very short periods of time less than a second. Therefore, power systems and all other critical resources should be monitored in real-time using state-of-the-art sensors and technologies. It is an investment but as it is mentioned in the video it pays for itself and does have a short payback period.