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News Release: NREL Joins Annual CyberForce Competition for First Time

College Teams Will Attempt to Protect Simulated Infrastructure From Attacks by Hackers

Nov. 8, 2019

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will host its fifth CyberForce Competition on Nov. 16. The event, held at 10 of the DOE’s national laboratories across the United States, will challenge 105 college teams to defend a simulated energy infrastructure from cyber-attacks.

Participating for the first time, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will welcome six of the college teams attending: Carnegie Mellon University, Red Rocks Community College, Colorado School of Mines, University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado State University, and University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

Cybersecurity Ventures predicts the global shortage of cybersecurity professionals could reach 3.5 million by 2021. The CyberForce Competition is designed to inspire and develop the next generation of energy sector cybersecurity professionals by giving them a chance to hone their skills during interactive and realistic scenarios.

During the competition, teams will compete to defend their simulated infrastructure from attacks by adversarial “red teams” composed of industry professionals, all while maintaining service for their “green team” customers, played by volunteers. A national winner, as well as winners for each laboratory site, will be announced following the competition.

“The nation’s energy infrastructure is becoming increasingly reliant on digital controls and communications,” said Amanda Joyce, CyberForce Competition director and cybersecurity analysis group lead at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. “The idea behind the competition is to build a strong workforce to defend this infrastructure from cyberattacks.”

The competition is co-funded by the DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER); Office of Science; Office of the Chief Information Officer; Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy; and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“The collegiate CyberForce Competition is designed to expose cybersecurity undergraduates to the unique challenges of an operational technology environment,” Karen S. Evans, Assistant Secretary for CESER, said, “there are no better ambassadors to educational institutions than the DOE National Labs, who have a notable history of building relationships within their local academic institutions and communities.”

In addition to NREL, the other laboratories participating in this year’s event are Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, National Energy Technology Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories.

The 2019 event presents teams with the challenge of not only defending one of four system scenarios—an energy company’s solar generation facility, electric substation, data center, or manufacturing plant—but communicating with the other three infrastructures to monitor and maintain the integrity of the system as a whole.

“The CyberForce Competition is a wonderful opportunity to engage and instill excitement in the minds of tomorrow’s cyber experts. By being at NREL, these students will get a glimpse into the complex distributed nature of energy systems that will need their cyber know-how,” said Tony Markel, senior researcher in NREL’s Cyber-Physical Systems Security Group.

The scenarios include simulated industrial control system components, real-world anomalies and constraints, and interaction with users of the systems. Each team is scored on its ability to safeguard the infrastructure against attacks while ensuring the usability of the system. “Out of the box” or innovative ideas and defenses are also rewarded in the scoring.

"During CyberForce, you’re seeing and hearing the effects of a cyberattack in real time, at your table, which is really cool," said Andrew Hughes, a college student whose team from the University of Central Florida won the competition last year. “Obviously, we need more research and development as a whole, and by educating people, we’ll make better progress. CyberForce is a very valuable tool in that respect.”

Corporate sponsors include the Federal Training Partnership, which produces training, technology and military-related events for government and industry, and service providers such as Microsoft Government Azure, Cavalry, Apex Systems, KeyLogic, West Monroe Partners, and Digital Silence.

The event aims to attract more promising talent to the cybersecurity field by offering memorable hands-on experiences and highlighting the crucial role this field plays in preserving national energy security.

For more information about the competition, visit https://cyberforcecompetition.com/.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for the Energy Department by The Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.