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Cyber-Energy Emulation Platform Offers Insights into EV Fast-Charging Station Cybersecurity, Mitigation Strategies

March 4, 2021

An electric vehicle positioned next to a fast charger.
The laboratory's Energy Systems Integration Facility allows researchers to evaluate various aspects of electric vehicle fast charging capabilities. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

As demand for electric vehicles continues to accelerate across the country, fast-charging infrastructure is expanding in parallel to meet consumers’ needs. Researchers expect over 50,000 fast-charge stations to be in operation by 2025, over double the existing amount listed as part of the Alternative Fuels Data Center. With such massive expansion, understanding the impact of these state-of-the-art charging systems on the power grid—while minimizing vulnerabilities to cyberattacks—has become paramount.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is at the forefront of this research, in large part due to its newly developed Cyber-Energy Emulation Platform (CEEP). Employing the use of the laboratory’s Energy Systems Integration Facility’s (ESIF’s) hardware-in-the-loop simulation capabilities, CEEP allows for the analysis of real and virtual network traffic in normal and cyberattack scenarios. Leveraging CEEP, researchers evaluated a 50-kW fast-charge station in the ESIF to identify risks and challenges that fast-charge stations could potentially introduce to charging infrastructure.

CEEP’s uniqueness is derived from its ability to generate emulated, multilayer grid environments that allow researchers to visualize and evaluate power systems’ interdependencies and network communications flows. In this environment, researchers can safely explore vulnerabilities in the virtual world on both emulated and actual physical devices throughout ESIF to determine how energy systems would respond to security threats in the real world. This capability expands well beyond fast-charge stations to entire distributed energy systems—utility power grids, cities, military bases, and more.

“Our research focuses on the communications path between charging stations and the network operator to determine if that channel could be compromised,” said NREL’s Tony Markel, who leads the fast-charger cybersecurity research. “By comparing attack scenarios to existing security protocols, we can highlight inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement.”

NREL recently partnered with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and Argonne National Laboratory to develop an industry-focused mapping of the communications network through the Electric Vehicle Extreme Fast Charging Cyber Security Architecture project. This initiative explores different scenarios that could result in high-consequence attacks to the power grid from the integration of fast-charging stations, such as manipulation of power levels or slowed charging at the station level. By mapping out these risks, researchers hope to introduce security protocols to protect the network from future threats as it continues to grow.

The diversity of manufacturers, vendors, and industry partners, however, introduce other challenges to the standardization of security protocols and system response features.

“I look forward to seeing continued engagement from industry partners to develop new safety standards and facilitate energy resilience,” Markel said. “We are early in this transition phase, and there is the potential for variability in manufacturer implementations.”

An additional research initiative alongside Idaho and Oak Ridge national laboratories, Consequence Driven Cyber Security Analysis of Extreme Fast Charge Infrastructure, delves further into the communication system’s details. This three-year project focuses on developing high-consequence scenarios of attack on fast-charge stations followed by system-level strategies and engineering tools to mitigate threats to the power grid. NREL researchers are focused on scenarios in which multi-port stations have integrated local photovoltaics and energy storage used for site-level energy management purposes. Researchers have been using CEEP to evaluate an attacker’s strategy within the communications infrastructure and evaluate potential response mechanisms.

“We want to ensure these systems don’t present new risks but instead offer security and resilience benefits to fast chargers,” Markel said. “This project will help streamline the addition of new fast-charging stations to the grid while bolstering consumer confidence in EV technology.”

Learn more about transportation and mobility research at NREL.