Power grid security work prompts $3 million expansion of UA electronics facility

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 989 views 

Alan Mantooth, distinguished professor in electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas and executive director of the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission. (photo courtesy the University of Arkansas)

The University of Arkansas is investing about $3 million to expand its high-power electronics testing facility in Fayetteville’s Arkansas Research & Technology Park.

The National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission, or NCREPT, is used for industrial testing and academic research regarding power electronics, with a primary focus of making the nation’s power grid more stable.

It is a 6 megawatt facility, and at full power it circulates the equivalent electricity needed to power an estimated 6,000 homes, said Chris Farnell, test engineer and interim managing director.

The expansion will increase the size of the 7,000-square-foot facility to 12,000 square feet. It will include a 400-square-foot secure room that — although it will not be certified at first — is designed to house sensitive information that would require a secret level government security clearance, Farnell said, adding the aim is to elevate it to a top-secret level in the future.

NCREPT is also trading its 10-ton chiller for a 120-ton chiller and adding new safety measures and cyber security research equipment, according to the UA College of Engineering. Construction is underway and scheduled for completion in January. The expansion is needed as the research component of NCREPT’s work has grown considerably since the center was built close to a decade ago, staff say.

NCREPT is part of three ongoing research centers right now, collaborating with other universities to solve problems identified by industry advisory boards. It started with GRAPES, a National Science Foundation-funded center that solves problems for electronic power distribution systems.

The NCREPT building opened in 2008, though the idea for it came several years earlier in the wake of the Northeast Blackout of 2003, where 50 million people lost power, and GRAPES started in 2009.

Alan Mantooth, distinguished professor in electrical engineering at UA and executive director of NCREPT, is executive director of GRAPES. GRAPES is short for the Center for Grid-Connected Advanced Power Electronics Systems.

Two newer centers, SEEDS and POETS, focus on cybersecurity of the power grid and the miniaturization and optimization of power electronics, respectively. Both starting their third year of research, SEEDS stands for Cybersecurity Center for Secure Evolvable Energy Delivery Systems, and POETS stands for the Center for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems. SEEDS is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and POETS is funded by NSF.

Shannon Davis, managing director of SEEDS, said the fact that NCREPT would take on testing load for both projects at once, while keeping up its existing work was unexpected.

“We participated in two proposals that simultaneously got funded,” Davis said. “It triples your industry partners, faculty and students from your institution and other partner institutions who require the test facility for testing purposes all at the same time.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Davis said, adding the upper administration at the UA recognized the opportunity and funded the NCREPT expansion, which might have been inevitable with NCREPT’s workload before SEEDS and POETS.

“SEEDS and POETS are the partial reason for the expansion, but even with GRAPES we were outgrowing our capacity,” she said.

NCREPT serves as the primary test facility for SEEDS. About 30 faculty and close to 60 graduate students are involved with the SEEDS research center, at the UA and its partner universities. SEEDS is tasked with “developing tools that will detect or prevent the threat of cybersecurity … shoring up the security of the power grid,” Davis said, but the team’s work also touches oil and gas distribution networks.

She pointed to effects on hospitals, nursing homes and transportation, for example, in the event of an outage.

“We’re not here to say ‘the sky is falling,’ because one of the big messages we try to get out with our program is that, quite frankly, we’re doing an excellent job providing tools to industry to help them shore up their systems,” she said. “Cybersecurity is probably always going to be an issue. It’s not going to go away anytime soon, but there’s lots of good news there. It’s not doomsday.”

While SEEDS has been influenced by instances like the late-2015 cyberattack that resulted in a widespread power outage in Ukraine, Davis said terrorism is just one facet of cybersecurity for power systems.

“Cybersecurity isn’t just about the bad guy, although the bad guys are out there,” she said. “We need to address cybersecurity from a global — as in comprehensive — perspective.”

That means preparing for other incidents that could interrupt the reliability of the power grid, including physical disruption and other elements.

“We’re developing tools that help mitigate all types of vulnerabilities, including the bad guys, and, of course, that’s what people think of first,” Davis said, adding that the idea that cybersecurity is purely an information technology field is incorrect.

All levels of corporate business should be aware of their role in security.

“We need to create a cybersecurity workforce that understands not only how to write good software but how to protect equipment, hardware and software,” she said. “You don’t just have one thing that stops it. You have many different layers and multiple types of security to protect your system.”

The POETS center is working to miniaturize power electronics that have “10 to 100 times more power in the same volume,” Farnell said. He said a primary application the team is exploring now is in the realm of transportation, including electric vehicles.

“It’s mostly about extending the range,” Farnell said. “How far can you go? How heavy are your motor drives? If they are lighter, it will allow for a greater range of the vehicle. We are also very interested in increasing the efficiency as well as reliability with regard to power electronics.”

One of the reasons the university was approved for funding under the center was because of its facilities, including NCREPT and the High Density Electronics Center, also in the research park, Davis said. POETS also builds off the UA’s power optimization research, which has garnered multiple R&D 100 awards.

The challenge with smaller, more powerful electronics is they get hotter. Managing the heat that is generated is part of the problem.

“This is not a unique problem, people have worked on it for years,” Davis said, adding that the POETS team and other UA centers’ approach to problem-solving is uniquely interdisciplinary.

As within its other research centers, the team works on projects based on what the industry advisory board votes as having the most merit and the most impact on the industry.

“They let us know what they’re out there seeing in the field,” Farnell said, adding that guidance by industry leaders is paramount to research centers, because it helps ensure the tools created are useful and efficient.