BPA is constantly evolving its cybersecurity protections to guard the agency from the latest threats, including ransomware attacks like the one targeting the Colonial Pipeline. Seeing this need, BPA’s Technology Innovation Program is helping to advance real-time threat detection within substations to protect critical power grid infrastructure. The Ambassador Project – named for its ability to serve as a mediator that brings multiple software systems together – promises to enhance cybersecurity while reducing maintenance costs and improving grid reliability.
This project is one of dozens TI is managing through its research, demonstration and development process to fill in knowledge gaps, automate processes and increase high-tech capabilities in support of BPA’s business needs and strategic goals. TI selects projects based on research priorities – internal stakeholder needs for modern innovation – that the group organizes within research areas. The Ambassador Project falls under the TI research area Information Technology, Communications and Cybersecurity. This particular area encompasses BPA’s need for real-time threat detection in the automated systems that monitor and manage the generation and delivery of power, otherwise known as operational technology, which the Ambassador Project seeks to secure within substations.
Nearing the final testing stages, the technologies developed from the Ambassador Project show great potential for advancing substation cybersecurity through updated software and hardware technology and what is known as cloud-native technology, a virtual application that is extremely adaptable, flexible and buildable without needing to update computer hardware.
“As BPA aims to remain the top wholesale power marketer in the Northwest, bringing research and technological innovations like this one to real-world use at the agency is important to actively defend our grid from cyberattacks,” said Gary Dodd, chief information security officer. “Protecting our substations and transmission system is key to making sure BPA can stay focused on our mission of providing reliable and economically responsible electricity for the region.”
The Ambassador Project also aims to reduce substation maintenance costs by increasing workflow automation and improving grid resiliency, achieved through better real-time awareness of operational technology. Added benefits include decreased errors and greater responsiveness, made possible by the programmed conversion of repeatable tasks into automated processes. This simplification removes human error and enables quicker identification of system anomalies that could harm substations. Once live, the project will allow for commissioned tasks of substation systems to occur in minutes rather than days or weeks.
“The Ambassador Project software essentially introduces a set of rules to each part of the substation system that monitors all data traffic and every piece of information that passes through,” said Aaron Martin, technical project team lead. “This ability to comb through every piece of data, and have the system be able to self-notify you when something doesn’t belong, is critical to increasing substation cybersecurity.”
TI takes advantage of in-kind services to reduce costs, maximize value
BPA receives many benefits from its TI-driven projects, which leverage collaboration with external research partners by providing in-kind services in lieu of funding. This is the TI Program’s newly revamped best practices business model after refreshing its focus in fiscal year 2020 to better align with BPA’s strategic objectives and reduce program costs.
“Technology Innovation looks quite different from when it began in 2005. We reimagined the framework for managing research activities in support of BPA’s financial health objective, which pushed us to realize that BPA could contribute more than just monetary resources,” said Judith Estep, chief technology innovation officer. “BPA has an extensive platform for testing new technologies, system data that can be used for test cases, and wicked-smart people that can contribute their input as subject matter experts. By contributing our in-kind resources, we can better leverage our research investments.”
A prime example of TI’s strategic changes, the Ambassador Project kicked off in October 2018 with the Department of Energy’s Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems program providing 80% of the funding and BPA covering the remaining 20%. Instead of contributing additional financial backing, BPA brought invaluable in-kind resources to the table with project research partners and vendors: Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Juniper Networks and Dragos. BPA is also providing subject matter expertise related to substation configuration and operations, as well as cybersecurity and real-world substation testing. As exemplified by the Ambassador Project, this business model ensures that newfound knowledge and technological innovations have a broad reach through collaborative partnerships that extend project benefits specific to BPA’s needs while maintaining financial strength.
As for the Ambassador Project’s next steps, the vendors will release the hardware and commercial software this summer after rigorous testing at a research lab in Virginia. Following the release, BPA’s Cybersecurity team will conduct hardware and software testing at one of the agency’s labs at the Ross Complex. Should those tests prove positive, the next likely step is conducting a live trial at a substation this fall.
“We are excited to be approaching the final stages of the Ambassador Project and potentially bring exceptional and needed innovations to internal stakeholders, such as Transmission Services, Information Technology and Cybersecurity,” said Estep.
Technology Innovation currently offering research opportunities
TI is currently soliciting research proposals from all BPA organizations and external partners to collaborate on projects that develop new technologies aligning with BPA’s research agenda.
TI is searching for research collaboration opportunities with external federal and nonfederal partners that will be driven by BPA offering in-kind services, such as subject matter expertise, testing facilities and access to systems data. For instructions and further details on how to submit a business case for the 2021 research opportunity, go to the Technology Innovation webpage on BPA.gov.