University of Houston Research Would Keep Energy Flowing

Goal is Resilient Infrastructure, Despite Cybersecurity, Other Risks

Traditional cybersecurity efforts are often reactive and fail to anticipate where hackers will strike and how. An initiative from the Department of Energy would change that for pipelines, the electric grid and other systems that make up the nation’s critical energy infrastructure.

“For most computer systems, we worry about preventing data breaches,” said Arthur Conklin, associate professor of Information and Logistics Technology at the University of Houston and director of the Center for Information Security Research and Education. “In the critical infrastructure for energy, we have a different objective: Keep it running.”

Conklin is principal investigator for a UH project funded as part of the Cyber Resilient Energy Delivery Consortium, which is headed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and involves 11 universities and national laboratories. The $1.1 million grant to UH includes $918,000 from DOE and an additional $250,000 in cost-sharing and industry partnerships.

The industry cost-sharing – $5.6 million of the $28.1 million total for the project – is a sign of industry interest in the work, said Conklin. “This isn’t Ivory Tower research. This work is aimed at what is needed in the next two-to-five years.”

David Nicol, director of the Information Trust Institute at the University of Illinois and principal investigator for the consortium, said the consortium will focus on ensuring energy delivery systems are resilient to any cyber anomalies, whether they are caused by nature, accidents or “malicious intent.”

“The challenge is that increased efficiencies and capabilities in energy delivery rely on greater use of computers and communication networks, which simultaneously raises the potential for serious problems,” he said. “We need to be able to integrate advanced cyber components with the assurance that we aren’t making systems more vulnerable.”

Conklin noted that faculty in the UH College of Technology have expertise in security for critical infrastructure, with previous work involving water, utilities and oil and gas delivery. They will focus on how to create energy infrastructure that can operate under uncertain conditions, regardless of the source of disruption.

“The real objective is about resiliency,” he said. “It’s not about keeping an adversary out of a system. We need to find ways to create systems that can continue to perform their vital tasks, even when they are under attack or experiencing failures.”

The work will encompass developing new tools, techniques and practices, he said, noting that energy delivery systems need to remain operational because the cost of an extended shutdown – both financial and the impact on all facets of society – would be so high.

“We can find the answers,” he said. “We want something that can be transitioned into practice within the next five years.”

The consortium also includes researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Arizona State University, Dartmouth College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oregon State University, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Rutgers University, Tennessee State University and Washington State University.