A consortium of researchers from Washington State University, utility company Avista, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, and over a dozen industry advisors is testing blockchain’s ability to increase the cybersecurity resilience of electricity infrastructure.

The team recently demonstrated two of the project’s first use cases. The first focused on securing critical data stored and exchanged between the energy management system or distribution management system and energy delivery systems. The second demonstrated how blockchain can help improve asset management and supply chain security for critical energy delivery systems.

The researchers said that these use cases are important as energy utilities work to secure an increasing number of end points from evolving cyber threats, while at the same time managing the expansion of distributed energy resources and other smart devices.

They said the initial tests suggest that blockchain shows potential to help secure these types of transactions. Blockchain also can enhance grid resiliency by providing a novel security solution for managing and securing critical energy delivery systems and data.

Blockchain remains a nascent technology, but it could enhance efforts to secure electric power grids. Source: NRELBlockchain remains a nascent technology, but it could enhance efforts to secure electric power grids. Source: NRELMichael Mylrea, the project’s primary investigator and a senior advisor for cyber security and resilience at PNNL, said that “While blockchain technology is still at a nascent stage and lacks a browser-level ease of use, these initial pilots demonstrated that blockchain could potentially unlock a new wave of innovation to help secure complex energy exchanges.”

Blockchain primer

Blockchain software provides a digital ledger that records transactions of value using what the researchers call a "cryptographic signature." Transactions are maintained in a continuous list of records, called "blocks," with protections against tampering.

Each block contains a timestamp and a cryptographic link to a previous block. Because the data that forms a block cannot be altered retroactively, the chain is difficult to modify.

Electric utility Avista is among the research partners. Electric utility Avista is among the research partners. Blockchain technology is popularly linked with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Even so, the technology that underpins it varies greatly in its characteristics, definition and application. News articles have noted that a volatile cryptocurrency market has demonstrated that blockchain technology lacks oversight and standards, which distract from the technology's real potential.

Energy utilities are taking notice of blockchain’s potential, the researchers said. However, they remain cautious due to questions related to the technology's interoperability, security and scalability.

The Keyless Infrastructure Security System (KISS) project was funded by the Energy Department and focuses on:

  • Developing a blockchain-enabled cybersecurity controller that uses PNNL’s VOLTTRON platform to execute complex energy exchanges that cannot be modified or manipulated by cyber attacks. VOLTTRON is an open source technology that independently manages HVAC systems, electric vehicles, distributed energy, entire building loads and more, leading to improved operational efficiency, reduced energy use and cost savings.
  • Developing a blockchain prototype to monitor and verify the integrity of critical energy delivery systems
  • Validating and verifying opportunities and challenges in applying blockchain to mitigate cyber threats to energy delivery system operation, configuration and supply chain.

The researchers said that the recent blockchain pilots helped increase the energy sector’s understanding of blockchain. These findings helped fill several major blockchain research gaps in determining technical requirements for scalability, interoperability and security.

These findings have helped open future research in applying blockchain that was developed during the project to live grid telemetry.

The researchers said that several blockchain solutions are energy intensive and often vulnerable to different cyberattacks. Public and private blockchains, and applications, configurations and implementations vary in terms of cost, latency, interoperability and applicability for securing critical energy infrastructure.

In 2019, the team expects to start commercializing a blockchain-enabled cybersecurity controller and move beyond field testing to utility-level deployments. They also plan to explore opportunities to partner with industry and utilities to increase the speed, security and interoperability of complex energy transactions.