Survey Results - Feeding the Big Data & Artificial Intelligence “Information-Appetite” – From the Low-Voltage Grid Read More Oct 03, 2019
NES VP Customer Solutions, Jon Wells, interviewed by OSGP: What will NES bring to EUW 2019? Read More Oct 01, 2019
Getting ready to operate the smarter grid: How Smart Grid Operations, aligned to ITIL, can enable the Smart Energy Transition Read More Sep 25, 2019
Smart Meters Need More Protection from Hackers Read More Aug 05, 2019
Feeding the Big Data and Artificial Intelligence “Information-Appetite” – From the Low-Voltage Grid Read More Jul 23, 2019
How to Provide Protection In-Depth for Your Smart Grid Read More Jun 07, 2019
Managing the Smart Grid; Re-inventing the Wheel? Read More Dec 10, 2018
Smart Grid Cybersecurity: Planning for Chaos Read More Nov 21, 2018

In an earlier white-paper, we questioned how to feed information into the ever-hungry maws of the big data and AI platforms, especially focusing on the information coming from the low-voltage grid.

The Question, Re-phased and Summarised
As the Smart Energy Transition picks up pace, the role of the smart grid is coming more into focus. A major driver are the initiatives of Electric Vehicle introduction, distributed and green energy production and storage, and energy community projects and micro-grid. These will have profound effects on the low-voltage grid, as this is where many of these initiatives are being delivered.
 Historically, it has been a major challenge to provide cost effective monitoring, management and control into the low-voltage grid. The result we have now, is a low-voltage grid which is essentially passive in nature with manageability limited to the “edges” of a black box and limited means to see and then control what happens within that black-box.
 

The Answer
The earlier White-paper described a series of “false dawns” where individual technology solutions presented possible solutions; big data and AI itself, IoT to gather information and connect devices, and then the smart meter. These solutions do not work in isolation, and it is only by integrating them into wider systems that it becomes possible to shine a spot-light on the low-voltage grid, and now it supports the Smart Energy Transition. In summary, the need is to have the measurement points in the low-voltage grid, enrich the information close to the source, connect multiple communications 
paths to the devices so that the strengths of multiple technologies can be combined and apply robust security to protect privileged information at source and in transit.
This then starts to drive the decision around investment in the low-voltage grid, especially in smart meters. The question for the procurement strategy for utilities is essentially: “With the major investments in big data and AI solutions, does it not make sense to focus investments on the sources of the information and the means of getting it? Isn’t the alternative simply wasting the opportunity to leverage the investment in the big data and AI platforms, and so have them become starved of information they need to justify their position?”.
 

A Survey
The results of a short survey conducted by NES, in conjunction with Smart Energy International, goes a long way to confirming some of these positions, and indicates where the utilities industry sits on this important issue. This survey was conducted in the course of a webinar addressing these specific issues which was attended by a blend of utilities, consultants, regulators and technology providers.

Around 75% of the respondents have investments either on-going or planned for big data and analytics for the low-voltage grid. This confirms the overall investment profile and the perception that it is important to gain more insight into this important part of the network.

An interesting dip in the next 12 months is an indicator of projects in wait status, possibly for external drives, such as regulation and technology capabilities, to establish themselves more clearly over late 2019 and 2020.

What is interesting here is the perception that the information is fundamentally not readily availability. This is clearly a reflection that unless supported by deployments of sophisticated smart meters and using these as sensors in the low-voltage grid, there is little available information. It also indicates that visibility within the black-box of the low-voltage grid is lacking. It may be possible to put some levels of manageability around the edges, but what happens inside is still unknown.

The second outcome was the reliability of getting to the information. This has been a major problem historically – whilst communications infrastructure exists, it is often not tuned to the specific demands of a smart meter deployment, and so reachability can be a challenge. This leads to the need for improved tooling for managing the communications outcomes – not communications network management but tooling to monitor SLAs on the business transactions of gathering information, and then using these to drive improvement plans. Related to this is the overall deployment of O&M tooling to keep the smart devices in the grid functioning properly.

Once availability and reliability improve, it is probable that the next bottle-neck will become throughout. The information will be there, and the challenge becomes how to get to it.

This next question focused more on the balance between procurement policies aiming to maximise margin by reducing cost and the need to invest in infrastructure. In the case of this survey, the underlying point is does the investment in the big data and AI solutions balance the investment in the equally important sensors and communications infrastructure in the low-voltage grid.

Currently, there seems to be a balance between future-looking functional requirements and the need to control costs. Interestingly, there is a very slight bias towards the future-looking functional requirements, which may indicate that procurement departments are starting to become aware of the need to invest in the low-voltage grid in order to leverage the investment in the big data and AI platforms.

The focus of this question was not just IT security generally, but specifically related to the increased deployment of advanced devices in the field, which, themselves, open up the opportunities for cyber-attack, directly as a result of their sophistication.

Unsurprisingly, people are generally very concerned. As more information is gathered from the low-voltage grid to feed big data and AI, there is more opportunity to capture that information, falsify it or simply block the flow. Whilst this is deemed to be simply operational data, the scope of impacts are limited to the utilities operational efficiency, but as more information comes from the smart meters, there is more of a perception that this is personal information. This brings GDPR (and similar legislation beyond Europe) into the equation.

What is interesting is that there are people who are only Moderately or Slightly Concerned; possibly driven by (1) the lack of publicised attacks, (2) the hope that it will happen to someone else and (3) technology will provide an answer in time.

 

NES Perspective on the Survey
NES provide smart grid devices and complementary operations, analytics and security software solutions.
Consequently, such results relate strongly to NES capabilities:

Devices
NES provides high-quality smart grid devices for the low-voltage grid which provide sensors, multiple communications options and protection of the valuable information. Investment in high-quality smart meters is the cornerstone of gathering information from the low-voltage grid.
All NES devices are built to these underpinning principles.

Analytics Software
NES provides enrichment of the sensor information by discovering the topology of the low-voltage grid, and then assessing phase balancing and energy flows within this grid. As well as providing for operational improvements and outage impact detection, this provides more of the information required to perform capacity and loading analysis in readiness for EVs, distributed generation, fraud/theft and community energy. This is the information required from the low-voltage grid to drive the Smart Energy Transition forwards. NES Grid Navigator and Grid Flow provide these functions.
 

Operations and Communications Monitoring Software
Operational efficiency and monitoring communications SLAs are a key aspect of maximising the information which can be gathered from the low-voltage grid by identifying areas of poor performance, and then using this to assess root-causes and resolve them. As well as the assuring the communications, robust O&M activities, supporting by tooling, ensure that the availability of the devices is maximised together with the communications. Finally, reception of events and alarms can also indicate problems in the low-voltage grid – the meter sees the symptoms of wider problems.
NES Grid Operations solutions implement both these key functions.
 

Security Software
The smart grid industry has focused on maintaining an IT security perimeter. Most ICT strategies now recognise that the perimeter will be breached, and protection in depth is required. This is achieved through intrusion detection and response systems.
NES Grid Watch provides intrusion detection and response solutions specifically for the devices now being deployed into the low-voltage Smart Grid.

Summary
A very interesting survey and thanks to all the contributed.
Overall, the results indicate that there is a significant on-going investment in big data and AI, specifically as it relates to the low-voltage grid. There is at least a balance between procurement policies of back-end analytics and sensors in the low-voltage grid compared to cost control, meaning that utilities recognise the dependency between the two areas of investment. Using the meters as a sensor is clearly a major opportunity, but more can be done to expose what is actually happening in the low-voltage grid black-box. Finally, getting all this information and keeping it secure is a major concern.
NES Smart Grid solutions are well placed to assist utilities as they move through the Smart Energy Transition and use Big Data and AI as a means to drive their business and technology decisions.

1. What do you see as the biggest smart grid industry challenge and how does NES contribute to the solutions?
 
In the last 12 months, since last EUW, we have seen the clear emergence of the Smart Energy Transition on the agenda. This is centred on using technology to address issues such as incorporation of locally generated cleaner energy into the grid, consumer enablement, reduction of transmission losses, automation, demand control and peak management, micro-grid and security.
 
Whilst conceptually simple, the technological and organisational transition is massive. No where more so than in the low-voltage grid; where visibility and manageability have been hardest to achieve, despite this being where the greatest change will be experienced. The key to success is to deploy sophisticated infrastructure which “future-proofs” the low-voltage grid by embedding intelligence which can be leveraged incrementally as the business case for change evolves and becomes self-sustaining.
 
NES smart grid solutions encompass both the metering infrastructure, analytics, operational and security solutions, and consulting and services to deploy sophisticated solutions in readiness for the Smart Energy Transition. 
 
2. Could you provide some background information on the current utility projects NES is involved in and what NES’ contribution is to the projects?
 
NES has undertaken several leading-edge projects this year which have helped several DSOs drive towards the Smart Energy Transition:
- Danish utility Ravdex, have used a multi-communications paths, enabled by the NES meter, to provide low-latency transmission of power quality information from the meter to an analytics back-end
- Linz Strom, are developing leading security solutions to ensure that their smart grid in Austria remains protected from cyber attack as its sophistication, and thus attractiveness as a target, increases
- OSHEE, Albanian DSO, are deploying NES analytics and operational software solutions to provide increased visibility of “black-box” low-voltage grid, to maintain high visibility of the meters and keep the infrastructure operating efficiently
- In Poland, Tauron are continuing to deploy NES meters, bringing the total number of meters under operational management by NES software up to over 1M.
 
This is in addition to our on-going European projects with major DSOs such as EON (Sweden), Vattenfall (Sweden), Caruna (Finland), Konstant (Denmark) and Cerius (Denmark), numerous DSOs in Switzerland, France, Germany, Poland, Romania and Ukraine.
 
3. What is your view related to the Open Smart Grid Protocol (OSGP) to promote and advance the capabilities of innovative solutions for utilities?
 
As well as providing a foundation for highly reliable and secure communications, the OSGP Alliance also offers NES access to a valued ecosystem of complementary and compatible product vendors. Many of NES products require that compatibility, especially when our customers require integration to back-end systems (many of which are OSGP members) and require a multi-vendor smart meter infrastructure supply.
 
In fact, the OSGP is offering many exciting opportunities for NES software solutions – our operations and security solutions are compatible with any 3rd party OSGP compliant meter – taking inter-operability beyond the meter and straight standards compliance.
 
4. What will NES be showcasing at the EUW2019 - OSGP Alliance Pavilion and how does this contribute to the Energy transition?
 
NES has been consolidating the functionality of its smart meter foundation, proving new communications approaches, developing solutions for demand control and peak management and implementing new security capabilities to maintain NES as the leading security provider for smart meters.
 
NES is now bringing exciting new software solutions to market and refreshing tried and tested capabilities in readiness for the Smart Energy Transition:
- Operations – with over 1M OSGP meters under operations management, NES’s release of Grid Operations reinforces our focus on helping our customers make the most of their investment and harnessing the flexibility of the smart meters through one-screen operations views
- Visibility and Analytics – NES Grid AI solution provides new levels of visibility in the low-voltage grid, allowing points of imbalance, over-utilisation and spare capacity to be quickly identified, in readiness for the Smart Energy Transition
- Security – NES Grid Watch provides DSOs with intrusion detection and response capabilities which go way beyond the traditional perimeter protection solutions offered by other meter vendors and standards
 
5. Who should be visiting the stand and why?
 
Members of any DSO with a focus on smart grid and low-voltage grid should be interested in what NES has to offer. This year, the focus is on the Smart Energy Transition, and any DSO looking at their readiness for this transition should review how NES solutions can help them achieve this. The objective is not to achieve the transition in one “big bang”, but, instead, deploy sophisticated technology solutions which will allow a gradual transition where each step is based on a robust business case and outcome. This is the way that the Smart Energy Transition will be executed, and NES provides just the right solutions to enable this transition.
In the past, the grid was not smart
Equipment was either unmanaged or managed through highly bespoke, isolated and dedicated systems.
Equipment was only able to perform the task it was deployed to do and required a manual intervention to change configuration to perform a different task (or the same task with different parameters). There was very little opportunity to change the way equipment functioned remotely and dynamically.
Equipment was largely unable to notify monitoring teams about potential and actual performance degradations or critical alerts.
Equipment was developed for a simple distribution model – energy was created centrally and then distributed out towards the consumer – always and forever.
In a sense, the grid was “hard-coded” to a specification and was largely mute in terms of how it performed against that specification. Furthermore, that specification is now no longer fit for purpose, when viewed against the changes about to hit the grid.
 
In the past, did we care about operational efficiency?
When we stand back and think about operations of grid a decade ago, can we honestly say that we were aware of operational efficiency? Sure, there was a known cost for maintaining an operations capability (staff, equipment, facilities etc….), but did we really track how operational efficiency was impacting the business?
Perhaps, the limitation was that there was little capability to manage the grid in a dynamic manner, and so the impacts of high MTTR, low MTBF, high MTTP and long time-to-market were not tracked in terms of their business impact – the operational processes were simply focused on fixing the problems when they appeared and trying to proactively maintain selected high-value and high-impact assets.
This one-dimensional view was adequate in a simple model of centralised generation to remote consumers but does not reflect the increasingly complex and dynamic “supply-chain” involved in energy generation and consumption as we go through the smart energy transition.
This situation was especially pronounced in the low-voltage grid, where assets are generally of relatively low financial value (not worth managing), almost entirely manually managed and expected to perform the same role (and the same configuration) from deployment through to end-of-life.
 
Change has to happen
This is unfortunate because it is in the low-voltage grid that the energy transition, driven by the Clean Energy Package and other green energy and conservations initiatives, is going have the largest impact over the next decades:
• Increased distributed generation and storage – using residential scale equipment to generate solar, wind and hydro energy, store locally, and feed back into the local low-voltage grid
• Community energy and micro-grid – balancing the supply of energy within a community to minimise the demand on external centrally generated energy.
Both require a low-voltage grid that is highly optimised, and which can be dynamically switched through modes of operation to maintain that optimisation as demand and generation changes.
 
The thing which is making the grid smarter is software
Software allows Smart Grid equipment to be both multi-function (or at least highly configurable) and remotely manageable. (Lets stop saying equipment because that implies hardware.) This is what is allowing the Smart Grid to transition from a traditional static centralised model for energy generation and distribution to a dynamic, bi-directional, de-centralised model for energy generation, storage and brokering towards the edge and closer to the consumer.
Simply put, through software and its configuration, components (not equipment) of the Smart Grid have functions which adapt over time to the local energy flows and wider contextual demand, consumption and trends.
As we move towards the Smart Grid, we need to review the value of the traditional approaches of managing the grid – initially field-engineers and with cumbersome, isolated and bespoke management solutions for high- and medium- voltage grid. Especially, we need to review the low-voltage grid, where remote management and automation has been absent for all its history. We need to recognise that increasingly, the physical platforms (including the sophisticated IT compute resource build into these platforms) are less relevant and it is the software (and included in that, the firmware) and the configuration of that software which needs to be managed.
 
A new type of issue – the Configuration Error
With this change, the types of issue that must be managed also change. Faults and performance issues will still exist with platforms and communications infrastructure. But, as the configuration of software becomes more important and complex, operational problems related to errors in that configuration will become more of an issue and will have the potential to cause as much service impact as mechanical failures of the pre-smart grid. In fact, in IT and telecommunications network deployment, it is often a poorly planned release of new configuration which causes problems – the configuration and the action of configurating is a source of error.
 
A new type of issue – the Cyber Attack
Traditional grid equipment only needs to be protected from a physical attack. As software starts to dominate the capabilities of the Smart Grid, the opportunities for cyber criminals to attack the grid increase dramatically. Attacks can now be made against the software itself, its configuration and its operation. Operational teams will start to receive indicators of suspicious activity, attacks and successful penetrations, but will traditional styles of grid operations provide the knowledge and responsiveness to cope? Will they even recognise the threat and the attack?
 
A new type of issue – Introducing Change
Change in Smart Grid capabilities will be introduced through releasing new versions of software (or firmware) and new versions of configuration. Introducing change to many 100Ks of meters in a structured way is essential to ensure continued operation through the transition and after completion of the change. Any failures of that change will introduce weaknesses, inconsistencies and vulnerabilities in the infrastructure. The approaches, skills, processes and monitoring tools to achieve release management are very different to those required for a traditional grid.
 
A new type of issue – Monitoring Business KPIs and SLAs
As the grid becomes Smart, its ability to play a role in the overall business performance increases. The operational processes can be linked to business-level KPIs such as customer experience, operational expense, capital expense, revenue leakage, market reputation etc….. Furthermore, operational performance impacts regulatory requirements, such as SAIFI and SAIDI. The traditional grid operational practices need to feed into these KPIs. Operational teams may even become accountable within the business for achieving SLAs. Smart Grid operations processes and tooling need to allow for this business perspective, and tune activities to optimise KPI scores and SLA compliance.
 
This all sounds familiar to IT management specialists
There is a natural convergence between the Smart Grid and the world of IT. Lets draw some parallels:
 
 

This has happened before

Other industries have gone through a similar transition.
Only 30 years ago, the telecoms network looked just like the traditional pre-smart-grid with technology in the centre and passive “dumb” equipment in the field and the consumer premise.
All that changed with the introduction of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and then (a few years later) with the smart-phone – suddenly, the sophistication of equipment in the field and the consumer’s premise (and the consumer’s hand) increased dramatically and started to look more like IT resources than telecoms equipment.
Today, a typical telecoms service provides a DSL (or cable or satellite) modem, a router, a smart phone, often together with broadcast and on-demand TV, in-built value-added services delivered to these end-points, connections to highly sophisticated equipment in the exchange/head-end/base-station, and a number of back-end services hosted by IT infrastructure either at the exchange/head-end/base-station or potentially anywhere, including the cloud. Communications are bi-directional and services can be provided by IT close to what was traditionally the edge of the network. Whilst dedicated telecommunications equipment remains, it is largely software enabled, and most of the high-value services are provided by software solutions.
Processes for the operational management of this technology needed to change to support these new types of resource and service delivery supply-chains. The result, being implemented today, is a set of standards derived from a convergence of TMF eTOM (processes dedicated to the management of telecoms infrastructures) and ITIL (the IT Information Library) which is a process set for the operations of IT infrastructure. It is this practical blending of telecommunications requirements with IT requirements which has let to this successful outcome.

OT and IT Convergence
This change in the telecoms industry is not isolated.
There is a wider trend of convergence amongst Operational Technology (the tools and systems which execute an organisations operations) and Information Technology. The drivers are very similar – initially, operational assets were not very intelligent or “open” in terms of their manageability, and so proprietary tooling was required to manage them, often labelled SCADA. As infrastructure embeds more IT-like characteristics and starts to follow more “open” management, communications and security protocols, there is a natural convergence.
Consider a fleet of trucks as an operational asset of a haulier. A decade ago, these were counted in and out at the depot with a mileage and tachometer check at the end of each day. Now, the truck has GPS, real-time telemetry, and all sorts of driver aids; all driven by software, configuration, reference data (e.g. digital maps and traffic information) which is automatically updated. And the materials in the truck all have RFID so they can be logged into an asset management system via scanning. 
And that is just trucks and haulage – imagine the convergence possibilities for a technology area which is actively trying to be smarter.

Applying IT management concepts to the Smart Grid
ITIL can benefit the Smart Grid, when used in conjunction with specific Smart Grid aligned operational processes.

 

It is grouped into five main process areas – Strategy, Design, Transition, Operation and Continual Improvement. Although developed for the IT industry, it is easy to see how these can become relevant to the Smart Grid as it evolves to contain more and more IT resources.

Not all elements of ITIL are directly or immediately relevant to a DSO’s Smart Grid operations, and all should be blended with those operational processes which are specific to the Smart Grid.

But, that is OK. ITIL is designed so that it can be applied gradually to an organisation, with a focus on those specific outcomes the organisation wishes to achieve. For a DSO operations team, the focus would be on Design, Transition and Operation, with Strategy and Continual Improvement being part of the surrounding organisational context for the DSO operations team.

So, as the focus on business and regulatory KPIs for the ops team increases and more IT is deployed towards the edge and towards the consumer, the following ITIL elements will become important, blended into the Smart Grid operational processes and driven by distinct business outcomes.

 

Keeping the Smart Grid specifics; recognising the differences
Keeping those operational processes which are specific to the Smart Grid is important. In telecoms, the outcome was a blend of two standards eTOM, from the TMF, and ITIL. So should the same approach be provided for Smart Grids.
This is particularly important in security; the Smart Grid has specific threats, vulnerabilities and temptations to the cyber-criminal which are unique to it. Whilst IT security practices can form a template, they do not provide directly applicable solutions. This is one area where the Smart Grid operations teams need to consider carefully – who will attack me, what is their motivation, what parts of the infrastructure will they attack, how will I identify the threat, how will I recognise an attack, how will I know it is successful, how will I respond to it. Answers to these questions can’t be lifted from an IT manual and applied to Smart Grid operations – they are unique to Smart Grid.

Making practical use of this
Right now, Smart Grids are being deployed, and the focus is on rollout and business case realisation. But, soon, the operational efficiency will become more significant, as it becomes more widely recognised that this is an influencer on many of the business and regulatory KPIs upon which the business case is based – specifically, customer experience, reputation, op-ex, cap-ex, revenue leakage reduction and security. The increasingly dynamic nature of the smart grid will need to be managed to meet the demands of the smart energy transition.
Like in the telecoms example, the operational requirements associated directly with a Smart Grid will be combined with a more general appreciation of operating an IT infrastructure, especially in the area of security. At this stage, a new class of operational tools will be required which implement ITIL aligned processes in conjunction with the specific process and technology requirements of the Smart Grid.
Such tools are in development today, in readiness for the point when the IT in the Smart Grid dominates over the physical infrastructure.

A real solution
Networked Energy Services (NES) is a leading developer of smart grid technology. It is investing in a new suite of solutions which are already blending key ITIL concepts with Smart Grid operations to ensure that the Smart Grid can be efficiently operated as the increased embedded IT makes it Smarter. Furthermore, its suite includes new security solutions which are targeted at the specific challenges which are inherent in securing a Smart Grid environment. Currently, NES has deployed its operational management solutions for over 1M meters in Americas, Europe and Middle-east. Its largest deployments are managing many 100K meters.

….For matured markets
The days of using data-centric solutions to meet operational needs, through expensive and bespoke customisation are drawing to a close. As agility and operational process specialisation becomes more important, tools which can be quickly deployed and provide in-built best-practice for operating IT-aligned grid infrastructure will become relevant. Increased focus on the security of the Smart Grid will drive the importance of dedicated security operations tools with in-built knowledge of how cyber-criminals will try to exploit the Smart Grid.

….For emerging markets
Although the focus is often on a rollout and achievement of the first generation of business benefits, the need to maintain the infrastructure in a mode that enables high-performance is increasingly in focus. This is driven the need for operational tools which guide the DSO through the extension of operational processes. From a security perspective, emerging markets often represent an “easy target” – although financial drivers for attack may not be present, the incentive to disrupt social energy schemes and government and NGO sponsored initiatives is very tempting.

….Proven consolidation through standards compliance
NES solution is designed to support any OSGP Smart Grid deployment. In fact, in one deployment, of over 400K meters, NES solutions are managing 3 OSGP vendors, with initiatives to introduce more OSGP vendors into that same network over the next few years.

A critical step utilities should be taking is to install monitoring and alarm systems to detect potential attacks.

Utilities should prepare to defend themselves against hackers attempting to access the grid via the new fleet of smart meters, says Emil Gurevitch, Senior Security Architect at Networked Energy Services (NES).

The industry is in a dilemma when it comes to cyber security, as while there is a need to share information, utilities do not want to talk openly for fear of exposing themselves to more threats or attracting negative press.

NES supplies smart meters to many countries in Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Americas. In Europe, this includes Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Romania, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany. Although many of these countries are less worried about the kind of national adversary threat that heightens tensions between the Ukraine, Russia, the US and China bring, there is a growing concern about criminal hackers looking to make financial gains or just disrupt the smart energy transition to make a name for themselves.

Wide attack surface
Not a lot of attention has been paid to smart meters, which is a relatively newer technology than SCADA systems for substation control and management of other parts of the smart grid, Gurevitch says. But clearly smart meter systems will become increasingly interesting for hackers as they create a wide attack surface with a varying range of security. There are easy ways to figure out what technology is out there, Gurevitch says. Public records of utility tenders and standards are all out in the open. A smart meter is very accessible – every home and office has one, normally in a private, out of the way place. Once the serial number is found, that can lead to an accurate account of what the technology is, and it can then be tested against known weaknesses.

The wave of smart meters being rolled out across Europe represents a huge investment, and utilities need to see a return on that expenditure – a single cyber-attack can wreck the business case a smart meter rollout. The life cycle of a smart meter is around 10-15 years, but that is a very long time in cyber security and a long time to be exposed to attack, Gurevitch says. Some utility executives understand the issue and are reviewing and improving their security posture, and some are in standby mode waiting for something to happen before taking action.  

A storm brewing
“Utilities have a chance to be proactive and anticipate attack rather than wait for something bad to happen. There’s a storm brewing and we have an opportunity to prepare for it,” he says.

Utilities should focus on monitoring, as at the moment many do not know what is happening at the grid edge Gurevitch says. “Some utilities are completely oblivious to the threat of attack, as if blindfolded.” Once monitoring systems are put in place and a threat is detected, the next stage is implementing the response. NES is developing such monitoring solutions in close collaboration with their utility customers and local partners.

Soon such security measures are likely be mandatory. There is a big push from the US regulator the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Europe has several certifications and other initiatives underway.  

New threats
Europe has made a lot of progress and new smart meters have embedded security, while Asia and the Middle East are moving a little slower and are still in the development and deployment stage, says Nicolas Viot, head of the penetration testing team at Sogeti, part of the Capgemini group. He agrees with Gurevitch that one of the biggest challenges facing utilities is the length of time the smart meters will be in place. “In IT we are not used to supporting systems for such a long time,” he says. Future challenges include protection for end-user connectivity, as more consumers monitor consumption on mobile phones, smart homes and buildings solutions, smart cars, and digital rights management for example renting movies via smart TVs. “You have to look at new threats that will emerge,” he says. A future trend will be incorporating small producers of renewable energy into the grid, which will create a new cyber security challenge.

While it can be costly, it does not have to be, and cyber security spending will ultimately be worth it just like insurance, Gurevitch says. “Those investments will repay through reduced energy disruption, reduced loss of customer information and improved PR when these systems are subject to attacks by criminals.”

Big Data and Artificial Intelligence is the Answer 
 
The promise of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence is everywhere. And, in all cases, so are the results. One almost gets the impression that there is no problem that cannot be solved with these new technologies. The answer to everything is “Big Data and Artificial Intelligence”. Open a web-browser and you see advertising tuned to your latest on-line shopping. Turn on the TV and you see advertisements about how our leading IT providers are using Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to address social, economic and environmental challenges. Two extremes of direct application of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.
 
The tools used to derive timely, actionable insight to both the biggest and the most mundane challenges have certainly hit the main stream. Using these tools has direct application to the smart grid. They can be used to increase reliability, improve operational efficiency, reduce energy loss, increase fair energy supply by reducing fraud and theft, identify illegal use of energy, enable other green energy initiatives, such as distributed generation, energy storage, and electric vehicles, and focus restoration by sociological and business priorities.
 
The piece which is often left out on all the buzz is where is all this data coming from and how it gets to the Big Data and Artificial Intelligence platforms. We know it ends up in data lakes and data marts, but where is this data created, how does it get to the systems that can create the value from it, and how do we know that it is secure as it makes this journey? And, then, how is this managed in a smart grid?
 
Smart Grid is the Answer 
Initiatives like the Clean Energy Package in Europe and the proposed Green New Deal in the US are driving the Energy Transition and putting focus onto the smart grid to achieve the improvements above. Similarly to Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, whenever the question concerns energy efficiency, the answer seems to be “the Smart Grid”.
 
A smart grid is generally split into 3 segments, the high-voltage, medium-voltage and the low-voltage. The high- and medium-voltage pieces are highly visible – they are major engineering projects and come with sophisticated communications, security and management capabilities in-built. Getting information to feed the big data and artificial intelligence platforms is no great challenge here because the infrastructure is already there.
 
The low-voltage grid is more challenging – the equipment is highly distributed, often antiquated, unmonitored and unmanaged, and mostly “passive” from an IT perspective. It has little or no mechanism to share information back to these big data and artificial intelligence platforms that are waiting for it. As such, this represents a sub-optimal use of major investments by DSOs. This is unfortunate because it is in the low-voltage grid that the energy transition, driven by the Clean Energy Package and other green energy and conservations initiatives, is going have the largest impact over the next decades:
 
• Increased distributed generation and storage – using residential scale equipment to generate solar, wind and hydro energy, store locally, and feed back into the local low-voltage grid
• Community energy and micro-grid – balancing the supply of energy within a community to minimise the demand on external centrally generated energy.
 
Both of these require a low-voltage grid that is highly optimised, and which can be dynamically switched through modes of operation to maintain that optimisation as demand and generation changes. So, the problem becomes, how to create information about the performance of the low-voltage grid, and then communicate that, securely, to the ever-hungry maws of the big data and artificial intelligence platforms.
 
Internet of Things is the Answer 
Connection of everything in the low-voltage grid to “the Internet of Things” could be the answer.
 
Of course, “everything” is really limited to those things with enough IT capability to connect and share information, where the coverage provides the service and where it is technically and economically viable to use the service at the volumes required. That is fine in the high- and medium- voltage grids but still has challenges in the low-voltage grid, where many millions of consumers and their equipment need to be connected and managed.
 
Energy suppliers need to consider the costs of deploying IT enabled equipment deep into the low-voltage grid, the costs of physically installing SIMs and associated SIM management, and the costs of monthly subscription for connecting to millions of end-points to collect many gigabytes (or even terabytes) of data each day.
 
Energy suppliers also need to consider the technology capabilities – there are several applicable network technologies, which can be used (NB-IoT and LTE-M being the most common).
 
These are wireless technologies, but it is also possible to connect through power-line communications to back-end systems which are Internet enabled. This approach does not involve a subscription fee, but is dependent on distances, quality and noise-levels of the power cable, and, so, like wireless communications, needs to be considered carefully.
 
Smart Meters are the Answer
So, the ability to connect to all low-voltage devices is a potential challenge – let’s look at the devices themselves and see if they are the answer.
 
The all-pervasive IT enabled equipment in the low-voltage grid are smart meters. These come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from the barely-smart through to the truly-smart, and are generally deployed at the edges of the low-voltage grid. Barely-smart meters are typically able to communicate low-volumes of “basic” consumption information relatively in-frequently, and simply exist to provide automated billing. At the other extreme, the truly-smart can be configured dynamically to report back on a wide range of voltage and power quality metrics, on a regular basis.
 
Of course, the truly-smart meters tend to attract a premium price tag that needs to be considered, when the DSO is also assessing their medium- and long-term investment strategy and business case. The reality is that, all too often, the DSO is under pressure to follow a policy of cost reduction, and this drives some to the barely-smart version of the smart meter. Unfortunately, these cannot actively participate in feeding the demands of big data and artificial intelligence, and so represent a lost opportunity to leverage the investments made in these platforms.
 
In any case, the smart meters generally only provide information about the customer service points and (sometimes) the substation transformer. This still leaves a big gap of coverage – effectively, the power cabling and associated distribution devices. However, some of the truly smart meters are addressing this space to provide an end-to-end view of low-voltage grid performance.
 
Don’t Look for the Silver-bullets – Practical Solutions are Needed
Putting aside the buzz around Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, Smart Grid and Smart Meters, there are practical solutions to presenting the volumes and types of information that is required to form timely insight for energy and operational efficiency and sociologically balanced green and fair energy programmes.
 
Where Will Information Come From
The low-voltage grid data needs to be created somewhere. Dedicated monitoring systems can be deployed, but they are often too expensive to be deployed as a “blanket” – rather they are deployed in specific known problem areas.
 
The most prevalent source of information across the low-voltage grid remains smart meters. The truly-smart meters allow large volumes of voltage and power information to be reported back to the DSO with enough frequency that they can spot trends, detect outages and short-term inefficiencies, gain insight, and take action.
DSOs should look at their smart meter procurement policy and be confident that smart meters will justify their big data and artificial intelligence investments and generate timely and actionable insight.
 
Where barely-smart meters are being deployed, DSOs will find themselves without detailed information of the low-voltage grid, be unable to feed big data and artificial intelligence platforms and be unable to adapt to the changing demands in the low-voltage grid.
 
Communication of Volumes of Data
The volume of data quickly scales up when one considers the millions of end-points that will have a smart meter; potentially to many gigabytes and even terabytes of data per day. The volumes and the subscription cost will challenge the standard wireless “Internet of Things” connectivity model. Communications of at least some of this payload over PLC will significantly reduce the cost and data volumes using wireless, and will allow the best of both technologies to be leveraged by the DSO.
 
A hybrid model of PLC and wireless will ensure both volumes and subscription cost remain manageable, and the data can be carried to the ever-hungry maws of the big data and artificial intelligence platforms.
 
PLC has received bad press over the last few years creating an impression that it is old technology. In fact, there are truly-smart meters based on PLC that employ the highest quality protocols to achieve high information rates, even in the most challenging network environments.
 
Robust
Some truly-smart meters extend these options by providing connectivity to physical networks, which terminate at the home, the multi-dwelling unit or in the street. In these cases, the standard communications provided by the smart meter is augmented, and either used to carry more information more frequently, or to provide a back-up in the event of one of the communications mechanisms failing. The latter resolves the problems of having “holes” in the big data. Some DSOs can even leverage fibre infrastructure provided by government programmes or their own investments and diversifications.
 
Secure
A lot of privileged information about the consumers and about the DSO is transported. The data lakes and data marts are highly secure, but the source of the data in the low-voltage grid and the communication through the low-voltage grid also needs to be as secure.
 
The built-in security features of the smart meters, the wireless and PLC communications needs to be carefully assessed so that the information shared with the big data and artificial intelligence platforms isn’t, accidentally, shared with the cyber-criminal fraternity. Again, typically, this is where the barely-smart meters are lacking, and so justify an extra careful assessment before selection.
 
Not Just Electrical Energy
Truly-smart meters tend to have additional communications capabilities in-built to allow connection within the consumer’s residence. This can be used to either connect to other WAN communications, such as the local ISP or community fibre infrastructure, in-home devices, or to gather information from other utility meters such as gas and water. All three utilities – electricity, gas and water – are scarce resources, and can be exposed into big data and artificial intelligence platforms via the truly smart meters.
 
Not Just End-points
Finally, the flow of energy within the low-voltage grid is as important to understand as the energy provided by and delivered to its end-points. The latest truly-smart metering solutions use their own on-board analytics to derive more information about how energy flows within the low-voltage grid, allowing far more fine-grain business insight to be generated and the guess-work taken out of what is happening between the sub-station and the consumer.

Smart grids are a critical national resource, and like any other, are subject to cyber attack. To date, smart grid cybersecurity strategies have focused on the perimeter. What happens when an attack is successful, and a cybercriminal gets past the perimeter? This is when defence in depth is needed.

A tempting target

A smart grid is a DSO’s (Distribution System Operator) largest investment and a national asset upon which mission critical and life-saving services rely. Government, business and residents rely on the service it provides every second of the day. It provides the energy supplier with their revenue, and through it, the DSO has access to highly privileged and sensitive customer information.

To achieve the social and economic benefits of a smart grid, sophisticated equipment has been deployed further into the less regulated and secured low-voltage grid. Whilst this meets the objectives for smart grid, it creates more points of entry that a cyber-criminal can exploit.

High profile and prestige smart city initiatives depend on smart grid for efficiency and optimisation – a successful attack could bring a smart city to its knees. So, these targets are attractive for extortion or high profile disruption – both motivators for financial and hostile government sponsored attackers.

These are not the only attractive targets – terrorism motivated attacks focus on many targets across the globe. Potentially all smart grids are a target to attacks focused on political or sectarian drivers.

Is protecting the perimeter enough?

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry has found, to its cost, that relying on perimeter defence against cybercriminals is insufficient. A perimeter is a combination of ICT, processes and people. Even where the ICT piece achieves high theoretical protection, it is the process and the people that can create “loop-holes”, which the cyber-criminals are highly skilled at exploiting.

This is equivalent to relying solely on the strength of your locks to your home and hoping that no one else has a key or can pick the lock!

Modern cybersecurity solutions are a combination of defence in depth with the assumption that, eventually, protection will be breached. This means that only when detection and response are coupled with protection, is it possible offer a comprehensive defence.

If the smart grid was your home, you would be subscribing to a local community watch project (to monitor general threat), installing video cameras in front of your door (to monitor specific threat) and installing a burglar alarm within your home (to monitor for successful intrusion).

How strong can the perimeter be?

The smart grid is increasingly complex. Upgrading the perimeter to the latest standards may simply be too disruptive and time-consuming to do quickly and in response to new attack mechanisms. The reality is that the attacker always has the initiative and technology will lag – both in creating the solution and deploying it across national infrastructures.

The perimeter will always be porous.

If the smart grid was your home, you would be changing the locks every week!

Is visibility of security events enough?

Even if a DSO is aware of security events, they can be missing important indicators of attack, simply because they are lost in the background of low-level threat indicators and false positives. Common responses are to log everything or log nothing. In either case, some DSOs may be unable to spot the key indicators which would allow them to adopt a modified security posture in response to a threat or to react to block an attack or limit a penetration.

Making sense of all the information

A key concept implemented in many SIEM (Security Information and Event Management) systems is correlation of large volumes of isolated and (potentially) false positive events against a wide set of contextual information. Such context may include scheduled events, topological or geographical information, known threat information, historic information, known and anticipated methods of attack and actual attack elsewhere.

The challenge is that ICT SIEMS are focused on ICT infrastructure and do not have built-in “understanding” of smart grids to make sense of the specific information or context.

What is required in a SIEM is the ability to:

  • Monitor the smart grid without interrupting or disrupting the key service it offers
  • Interpret events from the smart grid
  • Have the right context by which to assess these events
  • Identify and be familiar with the types of attacks, which are specific to a smart grid,
  • Have awareness of attacks across a community.

With this new generation of SIEM, it is possible to build a defence in depth for the smart grid.

Outcomes of defence in depth

With such a SIEM in place, the DSO can defend itself in depth, and not rely on solely on the perimeter.

This is a little like being in the community crime watch, having a security camera outside your house and a burglar alarm inside. To continue the analogy, a home owner may even accept older locks if they have the deterrent and defence in depth.

Defence in depth provides for:

  • Evaluation of the current threat-level and changes over short, medium and long-term
  • Detection of a specific threat and initiation of responses to harden the smart grid in readiness for attack
  • Detection of attack and initiation of responses to protect the infrastructure within the perimeter
  • Detection of a successful intrusion and initiation of responses to limit damage
  • Shared information across a community concerning threat level and actual attacks
  • Localisation of the threat with the opportunity to go on the offensive against the cyber-criminal!

The business outcome

DSOs with such an SIEM will be less vulnerable to denial of service attack or ransom, theft of corporate or customer information, theft of smart grid infrastructure, and may also enjoy lower corporate insurance premiums.

The social outcome

Consumers will be less vulnerable to disruption of supply and publication of personal information.

About NES and Grid Watch

Networked Energy Services (NES) provides Smart Metering and Smart Grid products and services including industry leading security solutions. NES Grid Watch provides additional defence in depth beyond the Smart Meter perimeter.

As Smart Grids evolve, they start to look more and more like distributed IT and telecommunications networks.
Gone are the days where the Electricity Meter was simply a device to communicate consumption to generate bills – the latest generation of the Smart Meters are mini-computers, with IO and peripherals allowing them to connect to home devices, and on-board compute resource allowing monitoring, automation, control and analytics.

And the communications infrastructure is getting smarter with the latest generation of data concentrators providing very capable ruggedized compute platforms far into the field, with the ability to automate local energy brokering services.

This means that, suddenly, the functions and capabilities of the “nodes” in the Smart Grid are no longer static and defined by physical build. They are defined by configuration of software and firmware. There is a massive opportunity to innovate and create a Smart Grid; enabled by this flexibility, the function and performance of smart meters can be monitored and controlled remotely, and new services and capabilities introduced without needing to visit the customer. This is essential if the changes in the way we generate and use energy are to be enhanced by the Smart Grid.

This modernization brings its own challenges as well. As the equipment in the field becomes more sophisticated, how will monitoring, management and securing of these assets need to change?

The question is partially answered already – just look at the telecoms industry. 30 years ago, there was a phone, a copper cable connected to an exchange and some switching equipment, much of which was physical – you needed ear protectors to visit a telecoms exchange in the 1970s.

And then transformation! The switch becomes a DSL Access Module, the cable is often now coax or fibre, or sometimes replaced by radio, and the phone is replaced by a DSL Modem, and suddenly, the laptop, smart-phone and smart-home become the end-point that the consumer interacts with.

Utilities and the Smart Grid are perhaps 10 years into this same type of transformation, and so the industry should be asking…..

How did the telecommunications industry respond to this massive change?

The answer is that they implemented sophisticated, highly integrated network monitoring and management systems; addressing fault/performance management, inventory configuration management, service activation and engineering. Integration is facilitated through alignment to an overarching telecoms process model called eTOM, developed by the TMF, the Telecommunications Management Forum, and the associated information model (SID) and application framework (TAM). This means that the IT teams building these complex systems have a common language, and vendors can align their solutions to allow interoperability.

This was great for the new generation of equipment (no longer requiring headphones to visit), but then, just like with the Smart Grid, software started to dominate. At that point, the ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) family of processes, became essential. These apply problem and issue management, release management, configuration management, security and SLA management processes, which are essential in maintaining an IT network where software and IT platforms work together. (Does this sound like the Smart Grid that we are starting to see emerge?)

The TMF, recognising this transition, moved to embrace ITIL collaboratively, resulting in a set of standards which provide a framework for managing, monitoring and securing a sophisticated distributed, technological national resource – the telecommunications network.

The final transition was towards customer experience management; utilising the compute resource in the handset to monitor and control the quality of experience of the consumer. Now, management of telecommunications networks focuses on social impact, revenue impact and public image as much as technology.

So, what does this mean for Smart Grid? Well, instead of re-inventing the wheel, why not look at what the telecoms industry has achieved over the last 30 years, as they went through the same type of technological and social transformation that the energy industry is going through, only now?

It all starts with the intelligent devices in the field, just like in telecoms 30 years ago – select the Smart Grid solution providers that give you visibility of the infrastructure, the consumer’s service, the ability to control the service and the flexibility to adapt through software and firmware configuration. Focus on the parts of the infrastructure where visibility is hardest to achieve, such as the low-voltage grid, because, these are the areas where change is coming fastest, and will require agility to respond through remotely configurable devices.

NES supplies the most sophisticated and secure Smart Grid solutions available today, and its solutions form the foundation for any energy provider seeking to follow the path set by the telecommunications industry, as they transition from being a technology focused enterprise to a business driven by social impact, sustainability, security and customer experience.

Cybersecurity efforts have, by and large, neglected the newly built “smart” infrastructures in power grids. Emil Gurevitch, Security Engineer and Hacker, explains why they will be targeted, and what utilities should do to plan for the inevitable cyberattacks.

Smart grids will reduce emissions and create a wealth of savings for utilities, but the fast-paced adoption of new technology comes at the cost of increased risk of cyberattack.

Industrial control systems have been subject to such attacks, and significant effort has been put into securing them as a result. However, new, emerging technologies, such as smart meter infrastructures, have yet to be battle-tested, and utilities should expect them to inevitably have weaknesses.

Despite this, they are installed into the grid in an effort to keep companies competitive in the race to the smart grid, prioritizing increased operational efficiency and new business opportunities over potential bad actors. 

You may think that comparing smart meters to, say, the SCADA for substation control, is a bit of a stretch. And, to some extent, you would be right. However, if you take an adversarial look at it, you will probably find, that they pose a much greater risk than expected.


Emil Gurevitch,

Security Architect and Hacker

For example, utilities use smart meters to remotely switch power off, they use smart meter data in mission-critical processes that go well beyond billing, and they make significant investments to upgrade the physical grid infrastructure with communications networks that bind it all together. Utilities expect these newly built computerized infrastructures to gain new capabilities over time via remote software updates, thus increasing the return of investment. From an attacker’s perspective, we are looking at a system that we can misuse to switch power off, a system we can manipulate to disrupt or derail a utility’s mission-critical processes, and a centrally managed system of millions of connected devices that we can take control of and reprogram.

In the EU, Member States are required to implement smart metering. The latest report from the Joint Research Centre says that Member States have committed to rolling out close to 200 million smart meters for electricity by 2020. 

Efforts to secure these new technologies have largely focused on trying to prevent attacks from being successful. This is of course important, but new stories of cyber attacks hit the headlines almost every day, and it should be abundantly clear by now that not every attack can be blocked — utilities must therefore invest in early detection and incident response, especially for their newer technologies that may not be procured, developed, or operated with a bad actor in mind.

Making detection and response a core part your grid is crucial to protecting yourself and your consumers, and are cornerstones of creating a truly smart grid and city. 

So, how can we ensure detection and response is effective?

A starting block is to work through a series of cyberattack scenarios and assess how your technology and processes hold up. Simulating them in practice and training for them can be a cost-effective way to find areas of improvement.

Cyberattack scenarios

Here are three example scenarios that utilities should consider, and ask themselves “how do we detect this early?” and “how do we recover?”. 
They are described from the perspective of the attackers and are intentionally focused around the often-neglected smart meter system.
Keep in mind that these attack scenarios are likely to happen in parallel during a real cyberattack. For example, in the 2015 cyberattack on a power grid in Ukraine, attackers took control of substation control systems and switched off power, they bricked grid devices by sending malicious firmware updates, turned off backup power supplies, erased files on servers and workstations, and even flooded a call-center in an attempt to prevent people from learning about the incident. These individual attacks were centrally coordinated, and some of them were probably launched in parallel. This is how real cyberattacks work.

Hacker Scenario #1: Power Outages. We work for a nation state and our mission is to inflict power outages. We hack our way into the utility’s centralized smart meter control center, wait until the low-voltage grid is under high load, and then we start sending out disconnect commands to all the smart meters in the field. In the middle of the attack, we find that the utility has built-in limits on the number of disconnect commands you can launch from the central system within a given time period, but we find a way around it — like we always do — and remotely change the power thresholds on the meters instead, thus causing the meter to hit the limits immediately and disconnect.

It should be noted that, at the time of writing, there are no known successful cyberattacks misusing the smart meter system to switch power off in the grid. 

However, like the flow of electricity, attackers follow the path of least resistance. They will go through the smart meter system to achieve their mission if that is easier than to breach the SCADA for substation control.

Hacker Scenario #2: Manipulating Business Processes. This time, our mission is to manipulate a series of processes that base their decisions on the information received from the smart meters in the field — such as signal and power quality levels used for fault detection and load balancing.  We hack our way into a couple of carefully chosen, Internet-connected control nodes managing around 2,000 smart meters in total. We then start making slight but controlled changes in the information reported back to the utility, and ultimately achieve our mission.

Of course, smart meters are often not just used for billing consumers for the electricity they use. Smart meters are increasingly being used as grid sensors, monitoring the conditions of the edges of the grid. This is an extremely insightful data point from a Smart Grid perspective. By manipulating this data, attackers can directly change the view of a grid to their advantage.

Hacker Scenario #3: Stealing and Selling. We work for a criminal organization. The mission is to steal utility assets and sell them back to the utility (similar to a ransomware model). We are looking to cash out as much as possible, and as quickly as possible. So we go after what a utility relies on the most to operate: data and grid infrastructure. We outsource the development of new malware targeting smart meters, launch it, and take control of thousands of smart meters. Then we change their security keys, pushing the utility out of their own infrastructure. We also rent a classic ransomware service and launch a campaign against the utility’s central system, stealing large amounts of data. We then demand a ransom in return for the access to the hijacked smart meters in the field, as well as the data we stole. We then wait for the payout in ’Monero’ to come in.

Although ransomware campaigns are common, there are no known successful attempts at pushing a utility out of their own smart meters with ransomware. However, it is important to at least acknowledge that all of these new power grid infrastructures are essentially large, distributed networks of computers that can be hijacked for financial gains. 

The need for early detection and response planning

So, how would your utility hold up in these scenarios? In an environment with increasingly resourceful attackers and an increased attack surface, do utilities have the right technology and tools to detect intrusions early?

Attacks can be significantly hampered by early detection and pre-planned disaster response playbooks. However, as of right now, solutions aren’t being applied quickly enough to newer grid technologies.

It’s like having smoke alarms in your house — you want to be able to prevent a big fire from happening by knowing there’s smoke. Utilities need to begin installing their cyber security smart metering ‘smoke’ detectors.