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GridCircuit simulation methods protect the power grid

Published 18 September 2017

In December 2015, Russian hackers pummeled Ukraine’s power grid, disrupting the flow of electricity for nearly a quarter-million Ukrainians. Then, in December 2016, roughly a year after the first attack, the hackers struck again. But this time, they targeted an electric transmission station in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Each cyberattack lasted no more than six hours, but security experts were still alarmed: hackers had just demonstrated their ability to infiltrate the grid and drastically alter the flow of society. Americans began to worry. If hackers could target Ukraine, then what would stop them from targeting other countries in western Europe or even the United States?

In December 2015, Russian hackers allegedly pummeled Ukraine’s power grid, disrupting the flow of electricity for nearly a quarter-million Ukrainians. Then, in December 2016, roughly a year after the first attack, the hackers struck again. But this time, they targeted an electric transmission station in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Each cyberattack lasted no more than six hours, but security experts were still alarmed: hackers had just demonstrated their ability to infiltrate the grid and drastically alter the flow of society.

Americans began to worry. If hackers could target Ukraine, then what would stop them from targeting other countries in western Europe or even the United States? Lengthy attacks on the power grid, or even simple power grid failures, would mean a lack of electricity, hot water, gas for transportation, electronic communication devices, and functional heating systems, among other things.

CMU says that, fortunately, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor, Larry Pileggi, and his graduate students have developed a simulation approach – based on integrated circuit techniques – that could potentially help experts model and simulate the power grid more reliably, thereby protecting it from possible cybersecurity threats in the future.

As an electrical and computer engineering professor, Pileggi has ample experience working with semiconductors, integrated circuits, and circuit simulation methods. But it wasn’t until recently that he started researching topics related to the power field.

“For most of my career, I mainly focused on integrated circuits,” says Pileggi. “Then, I had a summer intern who was looking for a project, so I decided to consider understanding why the methods used to simulate and model integrated circuits were seemingly very different from the methods used to simulate and model the electric power grid.”

Pileggi and his colleagues discovered that the methods used to model integrated circuits were, in fact, different from the methods used to model the power grid, so they found a way to simulate the grid by using techniques derived from the integrated circuit community. Unlike other simulation approaches, which model the electric grid in terms of power flow and voltage, Pileggi’s approach is founded on the equivalent circuit modeling framework, a framework that focuses on calculating power from the flow of current and voltage.