All posts by Bimba Shrestha

What Would Happen if we had a Smart Grid Today?

A smart grid is an electrical grid that makes us of digital technology and advanced software to rapidly and efficiently manage the supply and demand of energy. What would the world look like if we had a smart grid today? Read on for answers to that question from experts in the fields of energy and cybersecurity. For a complete explanation of the terms “smart grid” and “cybersecurity”, read this article.

If we had a smart grid today…

“The national unemployment rate might be 0%,”
jokes Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill. “Well, maybe not, but for computer scientists, it would definitely be very low.”

Reiter says that there would be a very high demand for not just software developers, but also software testers. He says testing the security of the smart grid would be a near endless job and that companies would be hiring as many testers as they could afford.

“When you have information as valuable as that found in a smart grid, we cannot afford to take chances,” says Reiter. “Every line of code in the system must be meticulously tested and inspected to insure good security.”

Reiter says that basic software testing can be done by non-computer scientists as well. He says that with the right training, even people without college degrees might be able to land jobs in software testing if the demand becomes high enough.

If we had a smart grid today…

“That might be a bit of a problem,” says Cynthia Sturton, a computer scientist at UNC Chapel Hill. “Because if we apply the computer security practices of today to the smart grid, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Sturton says that common security practices such as using a username and password to grant access to information have been a “weak link” in computer security for some time now. She says if we use security like that in the smart grid, we can expect to have power outages often.

“Using usernames and passwords for protection is something we have done for a very long time now and so it will be hard to replace,” says Sturton. “But if we don’t, systems like the smart grid may never become a reality.“

Sturton says that hacking into a system that has a username and password as the only security measure is almost too easy most of the time. She says that successful cyber attacks on large software companies in recent years have proven that our security standards need to be raised before a smart grid like system is possible.

If we had a smart grid today…

“It actually may not be that smart at all,” says Montek Singh, a hardware security researcher at UNC Chapel Hill. “Companies understand the limitations of computer security so they would likely be very conservative in their implementation of a smart grid.”

Singh says that the people who would manage the smart grid would play it safe and that they would likely start out with very simple features. Things like providing the consumer with a more advanced report of his energy use per month or malfunction detection in electricity meters.

“If we had one today, it would not be a full-fledged one,” says Singh. “Security issues must be carefully considered and having a completely smart grid would be very risky from that point of view.”

He says that the internet is a very dangerous place and that without more development in software and computer security, it would be wise to keep a smart grid dumb for the time being.

“People have their accounts on the internet hacked every day,” says Singh. “Can we really afford to have that happen with a smart grid?”

If we had a smart grid today…

“We would likely have many security issues,” says Stan Ahalt, a researcher of cybersecurity at UNC Chapel Hill. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. The benefits that come from having an insecure smart grid would far outweigh the costs.”

Ahalt says that we cannot be afraid to take the risk of trying to implement a smart grid. He believes that we are desperately in need of a revolution and that being conservative will likely get us nowhere.

“Just because something is risky and just because something can lead to complications does not mean that it is not the right thing to do,” says Ahalt. “There will be costly breaches in security in the beginning but we will learn from those breaches and keep improving.”

Ahalt says that such risks are needed to have large advancements in the way we do things.

“For example, everyone knew that the installation of cell phone towers for larger coverage and better Internet access would lead to complications,” says Ahalt. “But how much does that matter now? Because of those network towers, we are capable of having the Internet in our hands.”

If we had a smart grid today…

“Things would be much better,” says Kyle Bradbury, managing director at Duke Energy Initiative were he creates models to help integrate renewables to the grid. “All aspects of energy from the perspective of the consumers and the perspective of the suppliers would be made better.”

Bradbury says that having a smart grid today would mean that we would have the infrastructure to allow for easy integration of various renewables into the grid. He says our grid would be more efficient and much cleaner.

“A smart grid is what we need for the modern world,” says Bradbury. “So having one today would be absolutely great.”

Cybersecurity and the Smart Grid : Explained

The way you power your computer, your lights and your car is likely to be radically different in the future. Coal is vanishing, wind turbines are popping up, and engineers everywhere are looking to revolutionize the system that brings electricity to you by creating a “smart grid.”

But concerns about the security of the computer networks critical to such a revolution still exist, says Bryan Lampley, en engineer at Hoffman Building technologies, speaking at a recent panel in Chapel Hill.

“Cybersecurity is huge,” said Lampley. “Lack of proper cybersecurity is one of the main reasons why we don’t already have a smart grid.”

Like many other experts in his field, Lampley expects the coming of a revolution in our electricity system to be highly dependent on the developments in cybersecurity.

So what is a smart grid?

The grid, which is a network of transmission lines, substations, and transformers, is what delivers electricity from power plants to private homes. Although considered an engineering marvel, many experts claim it to be an outdated system that needs to be made “smarter.”

Kyle Bradbury, managing director at Duke Energy Initiative is one of these experts. Bradbury works on creating models for the grid that help identify the best ways to integrate renewable sources like wind and solar.

“The grid that we have today is one that was designed for the past,” says Bradbury. “Technology has advanced greatly since its conception, and we need to use it to make the grid meet the needs of today’s consumers.”

He defines the smart grid as an evolved grid. “It is a system that manages the supply and demand of electricity in a way that is reliable, economic, and entirely sustainable.”

Bradbury says that for a grid to be “smart” it has to be built on an advanced infrastructure that allows easy integration of all forms of energy. More specifically, he says, “A smart grid needs to make use of digital technology to allow for fast communication between the energy providers and the energy consumers.”

For example, if the electricity meter in a consumer’s home were to malfunction, a smart grid would be able to detect this and notify the utilities so that proper action can be taken.

Or a smart grid may allow consumers to report their daily schedules. The grid may then adjust the energy in the cooling and heating systems of the home depending on the number of occupants it expects at any given time.

“It will have automation, better controls, computers, and big data that make it possible to respond quickly to our rapidly changing electricity demand,” says Bradbury.

What is cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity focuses on protecting computers, programs, networks, and data from unauthorized access and change. It is especially important in today’s technological world because governments, financial institutions, hospitals, and other businesses collect, store and process a great deal of confidential data digitally.

Lack of or poor implementations of such security can be absolutely devastating. Even established companies like Target have suffered greatly in recent data breaches because of careless network security design.

Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill defines a secure system as one that is protected against misuse and interference.

“When a system is ‘secure’, it is entirely free to carry out its intended tasks,” says Reiter. “There are no external or even internal holes that could lead to its corruption or destruction.”

He says that what that means specifically will vary and that it is important to make sure the security of a system is well crafted to fit its needs.

“A ‘secure’ web browser and a ‘secure’ network are not the same because they are intended to do very different things,” says Reiter. “For that reason, security for any system, especially one as complex as a smart grid must be tailor fitted.”

How do the two intersect?

“For something like the smart grid to ever become a reality, we need good cybersecurity,” says Reiter. “It is as simple as that.”

Bradbury agrees and says that without good grid security, the system would be far more harmful than helpful.

“Hackers would tear the entire grid down within hours,” says Bradbury. “Both the consumers and the utilities would be at their mercy.”

He says that these attacks would come from not just individuals with malicious intent, but also from large companies and even governments. Given the right tools, hackers may be able to gain administrative access to centralized systems that control electricity in a smart grid.

“It is very frightening to think that power to a massive metropolis could be cut by a few well-designed cyber attacks,” says Bradbury. “But without the right protection, that could very well happen.”

A cyber attack is any attempt by an individual or group to damage or destroy a computer network or system.

Reiter says that digitizing the power grid means opening it up to anyone with a computer.

“So like any digital system or piece of software, the grid would become vulnerable to things like viruses, distributed attacks, and other forms of cyber attacks,” says Reiter.

Both Reiter and Bradbury, though optimistic about the possibility for such a modern and efficient grid, acknowledge that security concerns must be carefully considered and tested before deployment even on a small scale.

Explainer: The Three Openings that Hackers Could use to Attack the Smart Gird

In order to have a grid that is capable of handling the electricity needs of the 21st century — a “smart” grid — we need to make sure that security concerns are addressed. Without good cybersecurity, a smart grid will be very difficult to realize.

Cybersecurity focuses on protecting computers, programs, networks, and data from unauthorized access and change. In a computer network, there are many different layers of security to prevent imposters from attacking.

The three main layers presented below will separate and explain the concept of cybersecurity with respect to the smart grid as the sum of its distinct parts.

For an explainer on cybersecurity and the smart grid, read this article.

Denial of service: What is it?

In order to understand cybersecurity, it is important to understand the concept of a denial of service (DoS). A denial of service attack is any attempt by an individual or group to make a machine or network resource unavailable to its intended users.

A distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) is when the attack source consists of more than one, usually thousands and sometimes millions of unique real or virtual computers.

An attack of this kind is analogous to a large group of people crowding and blocking the entry door to a department store. The crowd, which can be thought of as the attacking computers, prevents the customers, who can be thought of as the intended users, from going into the store.

A classic example of a denial of service attack is the one carried out by the hacker codenamed “Mafiaboy.” In 2000, Mafiaboy launched a massive distributed denial of service attack on Yahoo, the number one search engine website at the time. The attack overwhelmed the Yahoo servers and made the website inaccessible to users for an entire day.

Each of the following three layers are vulnerable to DoS or DDoS in their own way.

The physical layer: Not necessarily things that we can touch

This is the layer of wireless radio waves. For that reason, attacks on the “physical” layer are not physical in the normal sense, but physical in that they can be carried out by tampering with the physical properties of wireless waves within a large network. More specifically, an attacker can emit waves at the correct frequency to “jam” a wireless network which would in turn deny the intended users of the network service to it.

In a smart grid, wireless technologies will be widely used and so, it is very likely for jamming of this kind to be attempted in high frequency.

“Something that often goes under the radar in cybersecurity discussions is wireless jamming,” says Montek Singh, a researcher of hardware security at UNC Chapel Hill. “But in a smart grid, everything will be wireless so we need to build better security for this.”

Singh says that it is often the things we most neglect that come back to bite us. He says that if we plan to have a smart grid, we would have to tighten up security on all fronts.

The network layer: How the internet works

The internet is continually sending information from one piece of software to another. For example, the software on your smartphone is continually using your social media username and password to retrieve new updates from your friends. This layer is what holds all the connections needed for the internet to function properly.

Attacks on the network layer are performed by overloading a specific connection with signals from thousands and sometimes millions of computers. When this happens, the receiver is given more signals than it can process and so service is denied to those trying to use the connection as intended.

Most of the communication done in a smart grid will be done using the internet so having a secure network layer will be essential.

“Even as we speak, there are network attacks being carried out,” says Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill. “It is a big problem and it will likely be even bigger if we have a smart grid someday.”

Reiter believes this layer to be the most vulnerable because of how massive it is.

“There are a countless number of connections on the internet and it is increasing by the thousands everyday” says Reiter. “The connections in something like a smart grid will targeted heavily by hackers.”

The application layer: Where small bugs create big problems

The application layer is the layer of the actual piece of software. Attacks here are made possible by careless software design.

“When people think cybersecurity, this is likely the first thing that they think of,” says Reiter. “Bugs in software that hackers exploit to create large problems.”

Reiter says this is where most the development will take place.

By this he means that improvements in cybersecuirty are likely to come from better software development. The other layers are fairly well established and unlikely to change . The software layer is the second most vulnerable and is constantly changing from software to software.

“In my experience, poor software design has been the main reason behind large computer security issues,” says Reiter. “The smart grid will be using lots of software so this is where most of the development will take place.”

Could We Be Breathing China’s Polluted Air?

At the end of last year, Beijing issued its most severe air pollution warning for only the second time in history. Dangerously high levels of smog, the polluted mixture of smoke and fog, persisted in the city for over five days.

Beijing and neighboring regions were forced to enter a state known as ‘Red Alert.’ Schools were canceled, cars were kept off the roads, and many factories were asked to pause production.

Since the incident, China has received a lot of pressure from European countries and the U.S. to improve the country’s air quality.

So why does the U.S. care about China’s air quality?

The answer, according to Dr. Uma Shankar, a researcher of intercontinental air transportation at UNC-Chapel Hill, is really quite simple.

“It is true that domestic sources of emissions are the primary cause of air pollution in the United States,” says Shankar. “But like many countries, the U.S. is a heavy importer and exporter of air pollution.”

In Chapel Hill, Shankar works on creating models for ozone and other air particles on the regional and global scale. She also studies the benefits of global greenhouse gas reduction.

Shankar says that air pollution moves across regional and international borders at an incredibly fast rate. Such transport of air pollution greatly impacts the U.S.’s ability to maintain and regulate air quality standards domestically.

“There is no such thing as our air or their air,” says Shankar. “There is only the air and what other countries do impacts us very much.”

Shankar says that many large-scale experiments have shown that pollution originating thousands of miles away can be observed in the air that people breathe due to atmospheric behavior.

She says air is typically carried in the south-west direction toward the earth’s upper atmosphere and then lowered back down through the push of air from above. This process is sometimes referred to as the Warm Conveyor Belt.

Where does the pollution come from? China?

Shankar says there are no primary culprits of polluted air exported into the United States.

“Yes, some countries emit considerably more greenhouse gas than others,” says Shankar. “But air is constantly moving from one region to another, from one country to another, and from one continent to another.”

She says that it would be very difficult to identify where exactly our pollution is coming from.

“Ozone tracer studies have shown transport from North America to Northern Europe,” says Shankar. “There is also empirical evidence of intercontinental transport of air pollution from China to the Midwest in the United States.”

She believes that the sheer complexity and unpredictability of the atmosphere will prevent researchers from ever knowing exactly where pollution in a certain region originated from.

“The air that we are breathing right now comes from not just our near neighbors like Canada and Mexico,” says Shankar. “It can come from countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia as well.”

What exactly is polluted air and what does it do?

Air with any combination of pollutants such as ozone, dust, soot, and sulfate can be classified as polluted air. When these pollutants are found abundantly enough, they can pose a serious threat to public health and the environment.

“The human health impacts of ozone and particulate matter such as dust, soot and sulfate are well established now,” says Shankar. “When inhaled, they can lead to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.”

Dr. Jared Bowden, another researcher of air pollution at UNC Chapel Hill, says that particulate matter, especially soot is the most dangerous.

Soot, also commonly known as black carbon, comes from combustion inside diesel-powered vehicles and the burning of organic matter. Bowden says it is also one of the most easily transported types of particulate matter.

Yuqiang Zhang, a Ph.D. student at UNC Chapel Hill agrees and adds that all polluted air is harmful.

“Some may be harmful to human health while others may be harmful to the environment,” says Zhang. “It’s very scary. The incident in China last year has shown the world just how terrifying air pollution can be.”

Some pollutants like carbon dioxide have long term environmental impacts where as others such as ozone have immediate human health impacts.

What can be done?

“This is a billion dollar question!” says Shankar.

Many differing opinions exist about the best course of action for tackling air pollution. However, experts seem to agree that stricter regulation across the world will be absolutely essential.

Both Shankar and Bowden agree that international cooperative efforts are needed to insure good global air quality. They also agree that international policy changes must be implemented intercontinentally first and then expanded.

“Targeting only a few countries will allow us to see what works,” says Shankar. “It will be easier to expand it once we prove its effectiveness on the small scale.”

Zhang believes that countries need to realize that improvement needs to take place globally and not simply within their nation.

“The reduction of air pollutants in one country can and will bring benefits for the air pollution in other countries,” says Zhang. “Simply changing policy within one specific country will not be enough in the long run.”

When asked about the specifics behind potential international policy, Shankar said existing agreements to cap carbon emissions could be extended to pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter.

4 Ways Computer Scientists Could Revolutionize the Fight Against Climate Change

There may be no one more excited about the role of computer science in energy than managing director at Duke Energy Initiative Kyle Bradbury.

“We have never seen such a major surge in the amount of data,” said Bradbury in a recent interview. “Soon, there will be very little that we can’t do with computer science.”

The Duke Energy Initiative works on fostering interdisciplinary collaboration for the development of cleaner energy systems. There, Bradbury works with computer scientists on data analytics and specializes in developing systems that learn with time.

Bradbury claims himself to be one of the few that are very optimistic about the future of energy and technology. But even he believes that considerable work in energy software is needed before it’s ready to save the planet. He sees this work being needed not only in the algorithms he designs, but also in the larger software industry.

“There is plenty of work to be done,” said Bradbury. “If you’re a computer scientist looking to develop for energy, you’ll have your hands full for a while.”

The list below outlines the four main ways that computer scientists can help fight climate change. It has been compiled using insights from energy systems and software researchers like Bradbury.

1. Develop Software for the Public Education of Energy Consumption

Bradbury is not the only one who sees room for improvement in energy related software. Dr. Ramesh Shankar is an energy researcher at EPIC, an organization focused on modernizing the grid. He believes informative software – software for informing the public — to be the biggest opportunity for computer scientists.

Shankar believes making electricity consumers aware of their responsibilities to be key in transitioning to a cleaner future. He also encourages smartphone application makers to take his ideas and develop educational apps for energy. In a recent interview, he mentioned the following:

  1. An app that shows typical household consumption of electricity on a monthly basis.
  2. An app dashboard for what the greenhouse gas emission impact is on a daily basis segmented by county, state, and nation
  3. An app that provides small actionable steps for electricity consumers and ways to track them.
  4. An app that shows the impact each individual can have if they use less energy or use more renewable energy.

Both Bradbury and Shankar expect a lot of change in the coming years. But unlike Bradbury, Shankar sees this change coming primarily from the consumers of electricity.

2. Develop More Robust Decision Making and Predictive Software Using Machine Learning

Software designed to identify trends in data to help make decisions can be classified as predictive and decision making software.

When asked about his thoughts on the current standing of such software, Bradbury laughed.

“Predictive decision making software may be the most scrutinized thing in energy today,” said Bradbury. “Virtually all aspects of it can be improved because of the complexity of the things it tries to model.”

He said that this same complexity is what makes creating the perfect predictive software practically impossible. Bradbury believes that pursuing such a goal is foolish and that developers will have better luck if they choose a more clever path.

“It’s impossible to account for all the variables in an electric grid, the climate, or any system for that matter, ” said Bradbury. “That’s why we need to create software that can evolve. We need software that can learn by itself.”

Thanks to massive data sets on the internet, he said machine learning – systems that learn automatically — will be absolutely essential to success.

“Researchers and engineers have done great work till now with predictive software,” said Bradbury. “But now we need more. More visualization software, better performance, and more use of energy data in helping systems learn.”

3. Help Develop More Customized Software for Collaborative Multi-disciplinary Research

Bryan Lampley, an engineer at Hoffman Building Technologies said, “Not a single one of us is smarter than every single one of us.”

Lampley believes that the fate of the energy sector lies in how well we can work together on big issues. He said that without insights from various disciplines, progress will be very slow – something, according to him we cannot afford.

Bradbury agrees.

“Climate modeling is a computationally intensive process that requires vast data sets and complex physical atmospheric models to accurately understand the factors that lead to changes in climate,” said Bradbury. “These require strong numerical programmers to work together with atmospheric scientists to produce these insights.”

Bradbury said that while current software for collaborative research is available, customized software is in high demand. He says that without a custom multi-disciplinary research platform, modeling something like climate would be next to impossible.

“It is just too difficult, and too complex,” said Bradbury. “Specialized software that takes into account what the researchers want will help make the process far more efficient.”

He said that this is true for all collaborative research in the field of energy. Bradbury mentioned collaboration between computer science and economics as another example.

“These predictive and prescriptive models will require detail-oriented programmers to work with people knowledge of economics and policy to help produce accurate decision-making tools,” said Bradbury. “Good software for research will allow them to do this efficiently.”

4. Help Improve Cybersecurity in Large Company Networks

Lampley said that lack of proper cybersecurity is huge in preventing large, connected networks from taking off. He believes that the risk for hacking is too great right now.

“Cybersecurity is 100% on the forefront of all of these companies’ minds” said Lampley when asked about the potential for hacking in large company networks. “They definitely don’t want all of their private sensor data exposed to the internet. Would you?”

He said someone could hack in and cut all the power off for an energy company.

“This is absolutely something that simply has to be addressed.” said Lampley. “We have got to have some security when it comes to large connected networks.”

Keith Dickerson, manager of smart infrastructure at Schneider Electric agrees and said “this is a very contested topic and we need more computer scientists working on this issue.” He says that without it, data open to the public would be far more harmful than useful because of hackers with malicious intent.



UNC Students Think The Electric Car Has a Long Way to go

Students at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were asked one simple question. “What are your thoughts on the electric car?”  Their answers, though primarily optimistic, remind us that this technology is far from where it needs to be. The main skepticism came from studies students had read claiming the electric car to actually be worse for the environment than their gas-guzzling counterparts. The legitimacy of these studies is unknown but some students also pointed out the impracticality of the electric car for long commuters. Below are some direct quotes from students.

Climate Change and the Transportation Sector

The transportation sector is a major player in the fight against climate change. It’s responsible for one sixth of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide according to the EPA. These emissions, coming from burning fuel, are also the fastest growing of any global sector.

The increased use of personal automobiles is one reason behind the rapid growth rate. The United States had 0.79 vehicles per person in the year 2006. Now, it has 1.10 per licensed driver (StreetsBlog USA).

Australia had 731 vehicles per 1,000 residents in 2010. Now it has 764 (ABS).

European countries like Italy and Liechtenstein are also buying cars at incredible rates. Both currently have over 600 cars per 1,000 residents (The Richest).

Car lovers are driving more and more at the expense of our planet. Emissions have been increasing for the past decade and the near future don’t look good. Has our reluctance to adopt better forms of transportation doomed our planet?

Well, no. There is hope and quite a bit of it too.

Yichang, China’s second largest city, recently won the sustainable transport award. The city received the award for launching its very successful bus rapid transit system (BRT). The BRT system streamlined public transportation by bus and took thousands of drivers off roads (Cities Today).

Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and Mercedes are revealing sustainable vehicle options that use hydrogen fuel cells. These cells are capable of generating electrical power quietly, efficiently, and without pollution (Fast Company).

The Obama administration is crafting regulations to give self-driven cars full access to roads. These autonomous vehicles can use power far more efficiently than human drivers (The Daily Center).

Germany is considering providing 2 billion euros to help support the use of electric cars. The idea includes adding more charging stations and buying more federal electrical vehicles (Clean Technica).

The Hyperloop is a solar-powered, self-sustaining transport system from Los Angeles to San Francisco (IBTimes). It is currently under construction and claims to make the trip in less than 30 minutes. Engineers from the Hyperloop will be looking to expand if things go as planned (Big Think).

Our predicament with high energy consuming transportation is fueling incredible innovations and changes. Cars are still being purchased and driven at incredible rates but so are electric cars.

This rapid increase is already effecting California. The state has adopted the new transportation form far quicker than expected. This has even created a severe shortage of charging stations (NY Times).

Concerned people all over the globe have expressed a desire to slow down climate change. They have realized that through innovative, new solutions, they can do this. They can support cleaner cars, better public transit, and non-automotive transportation.

The time to act is now and we are doing just that.