A Load-Oscillating Attack from Compromised Smart Meters Could Cause a Blackout, Say Researchers

By monitoring the grid while rapidly switching loads using smart meters attackers could cause widespread blackouts, the researchers claim.

A trio of researchers from Oregon State University have warned of a potential attack which could cause an electricity blackout by destabilizing the energy grid — using compromised smart meters.

"New technologies have been introduced to make our aging electricity infrastructure more efficient and more reliable," explains Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and lead of the project. "At the distribution level, upgrades have included communication systems, distribution automation, local control and protection systems, and advanced metering infrastructure. The bad news is, the upgrades also introduce new dimensions for attacking the power grid."

The team's research focuses on a proposed attack using smart meters, designed to allow for automated metering and billing while giving energy providers the ability to vary and control load — up to and including remotely switching off a subscriber's power in the event of unpaid bills. By taking control of these systems and forcing them to switch on and off at a given frequency, the researchers found, it's potentially possible to destabilize the electrical grid to the point of blackout.

"Imagine calling everyone you know and saying, 'OK, at 6 p.m. we are all going to turn the lights on,' Cotilla-Sanchez explains. "Even if you got a couple thousand people to do that, it would be unlikely to cause much instability because the grid is able to absorb fairly big changes in supply and demand – for example solar panels at the end of the day do not produce electricity and we are able to anticipate and compensate for that. But if a person were to remotely coordinate a large number of smart meters to switch customers on and off at a particular frequency, that would be a problem."

That "large number" turned out, in tests using the COMSIC time-domain simulator, to be not that large at all. "We juxtaposed our work with related recent grid studies," Cotilla-Sanchez adds, "and found that a well-crafted attack can cause grid instability while involving less than 2 per cent of the system's load."

Thankfully, the team also has a few ideas for how countermeasures can be developed against such an attack — aside from attempting to ensure the security of the smart meters themselves to stop an attacker in their tracks. "If they detect this type of oscillation on the load side, they could take lines A and B out of service, intentionally islanding the affected area and thus avoiding propagation of the instability to a broader area of the grid," Cotilla-Sanchez suggests.

"Another solution, which could be complementary, might be to change the generation portfolio enough – for example, curtail some wind generation while ramping up some hydro generation – so the overall dynamic response is different to what the attack was designed toward, so the impact will be smaller and won’t be enough to tip the system."

The team's work has been published under open-access terms in the journal IEEE Access.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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