A US research group is currently developing new inverters to protect solar systems from cyber attacks. The researchers also want to create new cybersecurity standards. Professor Alan Mantooth, the group's research coordinator, said inverters can shut down if they are hacked, or add to grid instability and overcharge the batteries, while potentially creating problems we cannot yet solve.
17th April 2020
A group of researchers from the University of Arkansas is trying to develop solar inverters that could protect PV power plants from cyberattacks.
“Inverters are one of the most important connected devices. If a hacker could take control, inverters would be a primary target because they are accessible and perform many intelligent functions to ensure stability and efficiency, ”said research coordinator Alan Mantooth. told pv magazine. “They are the heart of the PV system.”
Or to put it another way, they are the weakest link. “In a solar PV park, inverters communicate with a central controller and with each other, depending on the design of the operation. If hacked, they can shut down, overcharge batteries, cause grid instability and possibly do other things that I didn't think about, ”continued Mantooth.
The researchers also believe that a cyberattack on a storage-based solar system could destroy the storage system itself, which in turn could lead to a fire. “Dismantling or controlling solar PV farms would allow someone to disrupt critical functions in the same way as they would if there was a power outage,” said Mantooth.
The most vulnerable inverters and solar systems are those that are connected to communication systems that are not blocked. “Some solar PV systems have dedicated fibers that are never connected to the public system, so they are more secure,” said Mantooth. “Others are easier to hack.”
Systems based on string inverters are not necessarily more vulnerable than systems based on central inverters, he claimed. “If the central inverter is weak, you are more vulnerable than if you have 10 string inverters that are strong. Hackers write code to ping the system and try to find the vulnerability, ”he said. “So they're all going to ping them all anyway.”
However, Mantooth said it was safe to say that some products pose a higher risk than others. “One solar inverter manufacturer compared to another will be stronger than another,” he said. “There are no standards for this yet. So this is to be expected and should not be understood as a derogatory remark for the industry or the manufacturers of solar inverters. This is part of the reason the Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technologies Bureau is investing in this research. You want to advance the industry in this area as well while keeping costs low. “
The researchers want to develop next-generation inverters, but are also considering the option of upgrading existing devices at an attractive cost. “However, given the lifespan of solar inverters in the field, an upgrade may become part of a replacement depending on how old the inverters are,” said Mantooth.
Mantooth said we may see inverters over the next decade that offer a range of intelligent features for grid control and stability, as well as grid-connected, grid-forming, and grid-tracking modes. “Inverters that can work as an ensemble to provide the grid functions I have listed,” he concluded.
The research project Multilevel Cybersecurity for Photovoltaic Systems was awarded this week by the US Office for Solar Energy Technologies with a cash prize of 3.6 million US dollars. Mantooth is the executive director of the National Center for Reliable Electrical Power Transmission, the premier power electronics test facility at a US university.
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