Researchers To Create Interdisciplinary Ecosystem To Protect Critical Infrastucture From Cyber Threats

Pennsylvania is the lead producer of energy in the United States and exports more electricity than any other state in the country. 

However, the infrastructure protecting these various energy sources has gone digital and shielding it from cyber attacks requires far more than improving information technology cybersecurity. 

Cyberattacks in the United States have been growing rapidly since 2018 and have led to mass data breaches among other security threats. To meet these growing concerns, the White House released the National Security Strategy in March 2023 that called for an up-leveling of cyber security measures and practices nationwide. 

The University of Pittsburgh was awarded  $2.2 million from the United States Department of Energy to establish the Cyber Energy Center, a collaborative ecosystem for regional energy industries and stakeholders to help improve the cybersecurity for the region’s energy system. The scope of the Center’s work will venture outside of Pennsylvania and reach 21 utilities in 13 states.  

“The pandemic has caused an unemployment surge in Pennsylvania at a time when we need an increased cybersecurity presence more than ever,” explained Daniel Cole, principal investigator and associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt. “As geopolitical tensions increase, so does the need to be vigilant for cybersecurity threats that could impact our nation’s energy infrastructure.”

The Center will integrate interdisciplinary research experts from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, School of Computing and Information, Center for Energy, the Energy GRID Institute, School of Public and International Affairs, and Institute for Law Policy and Security to give it a portfolio of expertise that includes artificial intelligence and machine learning, grid engineering, law and policy, and energy-efficient computing. 

“Cybersecurity is essential to the functioning of our society,” said Erica Owen, associate dean and professor in Pitt’s School of Public and International Affairs, and member of the Center. “Both the energy sector and federal government are concerned with how a cyber-incident could affect health, the environment, the climate, and the safety of the public. For the energy sector, it impacts not only their business, but public well-being.”

Pitt has been on the frontlines of cybersecurity for a while. In January 2024, Mai Abdelhakim, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, and member of the Center, testified in front of two legislative committees at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in response to recent cyber attacks on Pennsylvania’s digital infrastructure. Last summer, Cole led a group of Pitt students alongside the Idaho National Laboratory in a program called Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Experience in Electric Grid, or SHURE-Grid that worked on solutions to protect the power grid through a multidisciplinary effort between Pitt schools. 

Research at the Center will address how to better integrate information technology and operational technology to meet industry needs by using modern tools like digital twins to achieve better intrusion detection and tolerance, improved modeling and implementation for real-world applications, and identifying the barriers for energy providers when determining robust cybersecurity programs.  

More than 20 industry partners, working with both the Center and Department of Energy leadership, will serve on an Industry Advisory Board to help define, shape, and steer research projects for the Center to ensure that its activities are providing value and meeting the needs of the energy industry.

To expand the Center’s reach nationwide, it will offer a number of education and workforce development programs to provide Pitt students deep experiential learning opportunities where they can tackle current problems from industry partners. Replicating this innovative program across the country will provide companies nationwide with up-to-date solutions and a workforce that is able to address rapidly evolving threats.

The Center will also engage with local community colleges to push cybersecurity curricula into their classrooms and create training opportunities, focused on economically distressed neighborhoods, for entry-level skilled workforce to learn needed skills in cybersecurity.

“All of this creates a research and education ecosystem that will create the next tools and technologies for better security, educational opportunities for professionals, and diverse workforce development for these new innovations through the region and the nation,” Cole said.