Shaping the future of Virginia Tech’s 5G power grid
By leveraging the blazing-fast communications of 5G and NextG, Commonwealth Cyber Initiative researchers at Virginia Tech are working toward a more resilient, secure future of the power grid — and they’re starting local by simulating a smart grid for Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.
“We are modeling Virginia Tech Electric Services as a microgrid with the bandwidth, low latency, and computing power of 5G,” said Chen-Ching Liu, the American Electric Power Professor and director of the Power and Energy Center (PEC) in Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “This is the right playground to develop advanced technology and solve more complex power grid problems.”
Together with Ali Mehrizi-Sani, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, Liu and a team of graduate students built a cyberphysical model – or 5G testbed — of the Virginia Tech Electric Services (VTES) grid. In collaboration with VTES and campus facilities, the team is using real data to simulate how a 5G-enabled Virginia Tech microgrid can integrate new solar panels, fend off cyberattacks, and store energy for use in a power outage event.
With support from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia, the 5G Power Grid (5GPG) project contributes to the Virginia Tech Climate Action Working Group’s effort to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — a goal approved the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors in March 2021.
The Virginia Tech smart grid
Virginia Tech’s future smart grid will integrate solar arrays, battery storage systems, and other distributed energy resources that require fast, reliable communication for security, monitoring, and remote-controlled capabilities. 5G and NextG wireless networks can meet these requirements by providing wider network coverage and faster data transmission.
“Communications can take advantage of distributed information systems with increased bandwidth and decreased latency so we can share more data, faster,” said Mehrizi-Sani. “More effective communications means we have better information and can make more informed local decisions.”
But there’s a downside: The interconnectivity of 5G and NextG makes communication channels more vulnerable to cyberattack. Malicious attackers can hack control commands, overload circuits, and potentially bring a grid offline.
Using the 5G test bed, 5GPG researchers are developing cybersecurity techniques to detect, counter, and track falsified commands.
“The 5G test bed is a digital twin of the actual system,” said Mehrizi-Sani. “It lets us simulate the impact before implementing it.”
The team is running experiments on the cyberphysical system, simulating changes, monitoring impacts, and compiling their findings to lay a secure foundation for the Virginia Tech smart grid.
Combining cyber and physical components
The 5G testbed has two main components: a cyber system and a physical system. In the 5GPG project, the cyber system is located on the sixth floor of Whittemore Hall on the Blacksburg campus. VTES data is fed into three large Real Time Digital Simulator units — the industry standard for high-level, high-performance power grid computing.
Computations from the sixth floor snake through optical fiber to physical devices on the fourth floor. Here, researchers plug in analog devices and physical components, tweaking battery output or solar generation.
After the analog components take measurements, results are sent back upstairs and quickly analyzed by the Real Time Digital Simulator units. Based on the analysis, researchers can decode what is actually happening in the grid — is it a minor perturbation or a bigger issue like a cyberattack?
“If it’s a cyberattack, we try to restrict any impact to the cyber side before it hits the physical analog components,” said Liu. “That is the quiet success we want.”
Resiliency and security from the get-go
By leveraging the diverse resources and expertise of the VTES-PEC partnership, researchers are embedding security strategies into microgrids at the blueprint level. Their findings are demonstrating the viability of new technology with benefits that can be shared beyond the Virginia Tech power grid.
“We hope that what we are doing here can be an example for building resiliency and cybersecurity into microgrids everywhere,” said Liu. “5G is here and already changing, just like the power grid — we’re trying to look into the future and stay one step ahead.”