NRECA’s Essence Tool Guarding Grid

By Cathy Cash, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

It was the perfect setup: remote, rustic and with a real electric grid ripped by sabotage.

The question for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association was how Essence, a tool it developed to monitor the grid, would facilitate a so-called “blackstart,” restoring power amid a ruined transmission network where cyber mayhem lurks.

To find out, NRECA’s chief scientist Craig Miller and senior research engineer Stan McHann, along with other electric utility technology experts, participated in a drill organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on Plum Island, New York.

The 840-acre island, about three miles off Long Island’s coast, has its own utilities and a dozen high-voltage substations. It holds shuttered federal defense facilities dating back 100 years and a midcentury laboratory to test diseases in farm animals.

“It was not a tabletop exercise. It was a physical problem with small substations and utility control centers. We needed to restore power to them and synchronize them to the grid,” Miller said.

DARPA created Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) to explore ways to resolve prolonged outages wrought by disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes or cyberattacks, where networks are destroyed and utility crews are gone.

November’s RADICS exercise was a key test of the technology.

“DARPA is very interested in Essence as part of the solution to deal with catastrophic failure of the grid across a large region of the country,” Miller said. “This exercise focused on how Essence can help restore a massive outage.”

Essence provides a constant monitor of activity on the electric grid. Sensors gather thousands of data points and anything abnormal shows up quickly.

“Essence tells us what’s up and what’s not and what’s behaving accurately or atypically. It monitors voltage for stability and the physics of the grid. ‘Malware’ could show up and it detects it instantly on the network,” he said.

NRECA plans to release Essence to potential commercialization customers for evaluation in April, Miller said. Before that, adjustments will be made to make the tool more “utility-friendly” by delivering only the most salient information to utility staff, enabling them to respond faster to grid incidents.

BATTLING UNDER A NEW INTENSITY
NRECA has been working with electric co-ops in developing Essence to provide “situational awareness on both the electrical and the cyberfront of the grid,” Miller said. Through tests with co-ops, the tool has prevented cyberattacks, overloading of transformers and possible fires.

That’s what co-ops face every day: the reality of keeping the lights on while keeping threats at bay.

NRECA was involved in each of RADICS’s four exercises, but Miller said the recent Plum Island test brought “a new intensity.

“It tasked us with learning what the utility people want to know and when. There were no coffee breaks. You did not get lunch. You were under pressure,” he said.

Pummeled with wind and rain, McHann, the only member of the NRECA team on Plum Island, arrived by ferry and hiked the island to install Essence equipment on substations and perform local analysis of devices and sensors. He had to pack enough gear and food in case inclement weather kept him on the test site overnight.

On top of the sheer physical reconstruction of the grid, participants also had to battle cyberattacks that pushed misinformation and fouled communications.

“Whatever DARPA threw at us, we had to keep that critical asset electrified,” McHann said. “Our job is to take those hard problems, break them down and design technology to solve them. It was not a simulated environment. It was a very real environment.”

As part of the exercise, one goal was to maintain power to a building that had previously been used for government research. “The building had been abandoned and sealed for over 50 years. Our job was to ‘restore power’ to it,” said Miller, who worked from a control center in Long Island.

Red, yellow and green “air dancers,” often seen flailing at car dealerships, puddled beside buildings targeted for power restoration. “When power came on, they stood up,” said Miller. “It was fun.”

Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.

Eastern Colorado Co-op SCADA/AMI Team in Capable Hands

Reliability and timeliness are what drives Fort Morgan-based Morgan County Rural Electric Association’s SCADA/AMI team. Led by Ray Mann, the team monitors outages through the system, which allows the co-op to proactively deal with power outages quickly — in some instances, even before the member knows the power is out.

SCADA — supervisory control and data acquisition — is a control system architecture that uses technology such as computers and other peripheral devices including programmable controllers to interface with electrical substations. AMI — advanced metering infrastructure — are electrical meters in homes and businesses that measure electrical consumption, and also can communicate with the MCREA network to report measurements. The hardware and software monitor the electrical infrastructure throughout MCREA’s service territory and communicate system status to the control center at MCREA headquarters.

Not only does the system technology restore power quickly, the issue can often be resolved without having to send a serviceman or lineman to the location of the outage. This has the potential to cut vehicle use and fuel consumption, as well as save the cooperative labor costs.

Mann reports that even with the upgraded technology, communication from co-op members is still extremely important, especially in widespread outages. MCREA even has a texting service for members to report outages, which further promotes their innovative approach to serving co-op members.

Close Call/Near Miss Reporting Form

Accident

an undesired event that results in personal injury of property damage.

Close Call/Near Miss

an undesired event where no property was damaged and no personal injuries were sustained; a slight shift in time or position, damage and/or injury could have occurred.

CREA Summit Focuses on Energy Innovation

Rare earth metals and their importance in new energy innovations were topics in one session of the Colorado Rural Electric Association’s 2012 Energy Innovations Summit October 29 in downtown Denver. Sessions also discussed electric vehicles, nuclear energy, biomass development and more.

In this ever-evolving world of energy policy, CREA works to keep its members on top of the latest developments. As part of that effort, CREA has hosted the Energy Innovations Summit for the past three years and opened it to others outside the electric co-op community who are interested in these topics.

This year’s Summit included a robust discussion of the future of coal-fired generation with executives from Xcel, Colorado Springs Utilities and Tri-State. All of the panelists agreed that the currently-low natural gas prices are a boon for utilities and their consumers, but the companies will all continue to rely on generation from their coal-fired fleets for a long time to come. The utilities representatives also reviewed the technologies they are exploring to reduce emissions from the coal plants to keep them viable into the future.

One of the highlights of the conference was the luncheon presentation by Dr. Tom Anklam from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Dr. Anklam provided a fascinating look at the Laser Inertial Fusion Energy or LIFE project that he and his team are working on in California. The potential for energy production from elements found in seawater is game changing and Dr. Anklam’s presentation demonstrated that great strides are being made in that technology.

The day wrapped up with a discussion of energy venture capital opportunities in Colorado.

Attendees declared the day a success as the Summit brought together diverse stakeholders to talk about challenges and solutions in today’s electric industry. Many points of view were offered and many opinions were shared. It was a day of looking to the future, working to find ways to keep electricity reliable, affordable and safe for electric co-op members.

—Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

EnergyWise Works with State to Develop Efficiency Project

Over the last several weeks, CREA and several of our co-op members have met with various state and federal agencies to develop a pilot energy efficiency project as part of CREA’s Colorado EnergyWise Project. The pilot program will be known as the Colorado Dairy and Irrigation Efficiency Program and will involve four co-ops at the pilot stage (Morgan County, Poudre Valley, United Power and Highline Electric).
Our co-ops will be partnering with the state’s Colorado Energy Office to perform audits of the operations of co-op member-owners with the goal of installing energy-saving equipment at selected dairy barns and irrigation systems. Using a grant from the Department of Energy, the Colorado Energy Office will fund 12 audits and from those audits select farming operations where it makes sense to install new motors or lighting to improve energy efficiency.