Advancing NREL's Capabilities in Cybersecurity and Grid Communications

Q&A With Secure Cyber-Energy Systems Manager Dane Christensen

July 30, 2021

The modern grid transmits power, but making that happen relies on vast amounts of data from a rapidly increasing number of devices communicating digitally through highly interdependent systems. This complexity presents new challenges to maintain energy system reliability and resilience, particularly as both cyberattacks and severe weather events become more frequent.

Headshot photo of Dane Christensen
Dane Christensen

Dane Christensen is seeking to mitigate the impact of those disruptions. Since joining the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 2008, he led pioneering work in home energy management and helped build out the Energy Systems Integration Facility’s (ESIF’s) residential research capabilities, before accepting a group manager position for NREL’s Secure Cyber-Energy Systems (SCyES) group.

What is the SCyES group, and what are the big questions you want to answer?

Energy systems are becoming more dependent on sensing and advanced control decisions that rely on the data from those sensors in a new, highly interactive grid. We are putting software into devices that never had computers or communications in them before—such as thermostats and vehicles. This data and controllability offer huge benefits, but it also means they could now potentially be disrupted. SCyES asks, how can we start designing the system, not only for improved control and efficiency, but for improved security and resilience?

Our team is offering two novel sets of capabilities, at least for NREL. The first one is cybersecurity of industrial control systems, the grid, and distributed resources. The second is expertise on communication systems like the internet, supervisory control and data acquisition, 5G, and advanced metering infrastructure networks. That expertise helps form the simulation platforms that are the playground for our cybersecurity research. It also allows us to support our colleagues in any research thrust that has a focus on communications.

What is one tool that you found particularly exciting to develop?

The capability that we are developing right now is one of the most exciting things I’ve worked on at NREL—the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) cyber range. It is establishing a communications layer that would allow devices across all of ARIES to talk to each other—and also to talk to the other things they would encounter in the real world. For example, an autonomous electric vehicle communicating with a manufacturer’s cloud might talk over cellular service, like 5G, but there would also be a lot of other 5G traffic. So we need to emulate all the vehicles talking to that cloud and all the other communications on the network. This kind of traffic occurs with utility systems, building systems, and renewables.

But because we can’t create all that hardware, we’re establishing communication pathways between a few devices in the labs, and then the rest of the world is virtualized. This requires tons of sophisticated emulation and modeling, and we are just starting to bring that online with the Cyber-Energy Emulation Platform (CEEP). We’re also building out the physical tendrils to connect to the labs at the ESIF and eventually to the Flatirons campus to evaluate more vertically integrated utility- and transmission-scale communications.

What are the challenges of working on such an interdisciplinary research area?

You can see electricity energizing a lightbulb and giving us light, but you can’t see packets of data flowing from your smart thermostat to the cloud, then to an aggregator, and finally to the utility. That chain is something we are all relatively blind to. We have had to synthesize research tools by drawing on expertise in network design and architecture, information security, and software development, but also expertise in communication technologies and industrial controls. We want to start engaging much more proactively with our colleagues, because this is a highly interdisciplinary effort, and it needs to be even more so.

We need to understand and value these dependencies because there are aging and insufficiently secure legacy controls deployed within most industries. Although we haven’t had as many power disruption incidents as other countries, we are not immune. Distance is no barrier to those types of cyber effects happening in the U.S., yet costs, time to deploy, and uncertain regulatory and legal environments are all barriers to implementing better defenses. Building on what our colleagues have done in energy efficiency, we are trying to clarify the value proposition and practical approaches to realize appropriate forward-looking security for these critical infrastructure systems.

How has the conversation around cybersecurity of critical infrastructure changed, and what are some positive developments?

The headlines this year have helped accelerate the conversation; however, our Department of Energy partners, private industry, and national laboratories were already well aware of the risks. It is about prioritizing. We know that when there is a cyberattack on critical infrastructure, the impact on society at large is much greater than the impact on a specific business that can be insured against ransomware. So we need to start talking at the regional and national level.

One example we’re excited about is the Wind Cybersecurity Consortium, a public-private partnership funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Cybersecurity Energy Security and Emergency Response and DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Wind Energy Technologies Office. Six of the largest wind-related companies in the world are collaborating with us, sharing threat intelligence and active, healthy discussion on better cybersecurity. This is just something that is relatively new in the operational technology space, but we’ve seen from IT systems that there is a huge benefit in sharing data on attacks. The more rapidly you can share it, the better everyone can protect themselves.

Your research at NREL has long focused on the Internet of Things (IoT). How did that lead to your current role in cybersecurity?

I began working at NREL on energy efficiency technologies for buildings, and it was becoming clear that we were building net energy-positive buildings that pushed energy back onto the grid. This really led me into IoT, bringing data together and aligning energy use with energy production. There were a lot of questions about privacy and security because we were putting IT equipment—similar to what is in a cellphone or laptop and designed to last only a few years—into something meant to last 25 to 30 years in a building where it can’t be easily upgraded or replaced.

I am an early adopter of a lot of this stuff—I’m a geek—but I struggle to keep up with the firmware updates and patches to all the little IoT devices in my own home! So I began doing a lot of studies with people in cybersecurity, and it was a real pleasure about a year ago to shift over into the Energy Security and Resilience Center and now manage the cybersecurity team. ­­

What do you like to do outside of work?

I am the father of two young girls, and this past weekend I took my 8-year-old daughter on her first backpacking trip. One reason I decided to move from Houston, where I was working in aerospace, back to the Rockies where I grew up is to be close to the outdoors—skiing, hiking, rafting, and biking. My other hobby is woodworking, except during the pandemic when we had to convert my woodshop into a home office.