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ASU hosts U.S.-Israel energy cybersecurity workshop

by | Nov 14, 2023 | Features, Fulton Schools

Organizers of the Israel-U.S. Initiative on Cybersecurity Research and Development for Energy, or ICRDE, October 2023 workshop pose for a photo. Participants discussed research findings and vital information related to the ICRDE’s work. Although it was the organization’s fifth conference, it was the first held in person after earlier workshops were conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Yang Weng/ASU

In light of events threatening global security such as the war that began between Israel and Hamas on Oct. 7, the need to secure vital resources such as electricity, water and fuels is more essential than ever.

To bolster cyberdefense for energy grids and water systems, the U.S. and Israel began a collaboration known as the Israel-U.S. Initiative on Cybersecurity Research and Development for Energy, or ICRDE, which is one of four consortia operating under the administration of the U.S.-Israel Energy Center. The ICRDE is funded by the U.S.-Israel Energy Center program and managed by the U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development, or BIRD, Foundation.

The collaboration, which began in 2021, includes a variety of academic and industry partners. Arizona State University leads the coalition’s U.S. efforts, while Ben-Gurion University of the Negev leads the Israeli operations.

The coalition has conducted research to improve energy grid cybersecurity since 2021 and has held four virtual conference workshops. The fifth workshop, held in Tempe, Arizona, at the Hyatt Place hotel near ASU’s Tempe campus in October 2023, was the first to take place in person after earlier events were conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The workshops give coalition members a chance to network, discuss the ICRDE’s future plans and share updates on their research progress.

The ICRDE’s work has gained recognition beyond the coalition’s membership, which led the Tempe workshop leaders to invite organizations outside of coalition partners, such as those from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Stanford University.

“The workshop shows a common interest related to my research field,” says Yang Weng, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU and leader of the ICRDE’s work in the U.S. “In the workshop, we bring distinct ideas to the consortium based on our research and products.”

Discovering new defenses for energy resources

Addressing conference participants, Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools and ASU’s vice provost of engineering, computing and technology, gave an overview of the university’s values and its mission as a public institution.

“ASU is No. 1 in innovation, and it’s been that way now for nine years running,” Squires said in his speech. “When you’re around the place and you’re working with our faculty and students, you really begin to get a sense of what that’s like.”

A written message from Tal Fischelovitch, the BIRD Foundation’s ICRDE director of partnerships, encouraged those involved in the coalition to build connections with one another and take advantage of the opportunity to meet in person.

The keynote speaker for the day, Gideon Friedmann, a chief scientist at the Israel Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, spoke about the challenges presented by the transition to renewable energy resources and related cybersecurity issues.

Friedmann discussed the potential and current state of various technologies for carbon emission reduction, including hydrogen fuel, carbon capture, geothermal energy, solar technology and nuclear power. He also discussed how the smart grid will change energy markets for electricity and the cybersecurity challenges the energy grid faces.

Friedmann said one of the biggest challenges to cybersecurity for renewable energy is the change from a few leading sources of power generation to many smaller sources.

“You have millions of nodes, of course, and a very complicated connection system, and many of them will be run by people who are not experts in any way, similarly to how everyone has their own computer,” he said. “Most users have no idea about cyber[security]. This is, in some sense, risky, but in other senses, it’s also resilient because the system is more diverse.”

The conference agenda included presentations on new developments related to the consortium’s research priorities, such as projects in modeling and monitoring of energy systems and tools for learning and detection of cyberattacks on information technology and operational technology architecture.

ASU presenters included Weng, Lalitha Sankar, a Fulton Schools professor of electrical engineering, and Joel Mathias, an electrical engineering postdoctoral research scholar.

The event also included discussions of the ICRDE’s future, such as the potential to extend the consortium’s activities, funding and ideas for potential new pursuits, including one by Ying-Cheng Lai, an ASU Regents Professor of electrical engineering, to use advanced machine learning techniques to detect and defend against cyberattacks on the energy grid.

The workshop’s first day finished with two poster presentation sessions, a mariachi music performance and a review of work on ICRDE projects.

attendees at the Israel-U.S. Initiative on Cybersecurity Research and Development for Energy

A group photo shows the attendees at the Israel-U.S. Initiative on Cybersecurity Research and Development for Energy, or ICRDE, October 2023 workshop. Photo courtesy of Yang Weng/ASU

Contemplating cybersecurity to defend the energy grid

The second day began with a keynote speech from Jared Bierbach, a senior international relations officer for the U.S. Department of Energy. Bierbach praised the ICRDE as an effective example of industry and academic collaboration across consortium members from both countries.

“Although it’s been around for just a few years, many people are looking to the model of the energy center to advance technology and bring together leaders and academia, research institutions and industry to solve complex problems,” he said.

Bierbach explained his role in the Department of Energy’s Office of International Affairs and described some of the inner workings of the department. He emphasized the importance of cybersecurity and the ICRDE’s work in furthering the Biden administration’s climate goals.

The day’s agenda included meetings with cybersecurity experts from industry, a simulation and security assessment of industrial control systems, panel discussions on cybersecurity attack detection and mitigation, and security assessment and information sharing, meetings about business opportunities and the ICRDE’s future, demonstrations of cybersecurity tools developed by industry, a research poster presentation session and a tour of Weng’s lab.

Closing out a collaborative workshop

Stephen Phillips, professor of electrical engineering and director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, opened the final day of the conference by giving an overview of funding and explaining where support for the ICRDE comes from for various organizations within the university.

“There is a commitment from the entire university toward the success of this project,” Phillips said.

The first presentation session of the day was about strengthening power grids using tools for control and mitigation of threats to grid resilience. ASU’s Lai was among the presenters, explaining his findings on the use of heterogeneous reinforcement learning, a type of machine learning, for the defense of large power grids and the technology’s potential commercialization.

A final session on cybersecurity designs to defend against future threats included Weng’s research on hardware-in-the-loop technology, which tests algorithms by running them in a virtual environment designed to simulate real-world conditions.

For Weng, the workshop reflected a commitment to making meaningful progress toward solving energy grid security issues around the world.

“I am glad to bring people together to tackle the cybersecurity problem for energy systems,” he says. “I hope that ASU can continue its leadership in power and energy research and improve energy services for people worldwide.”​

About The Author

TJ Triolo

TJ Triolo is a marketing and communications project coordinator in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He's a 2020 graduate of ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. After starting his career in marketing and communications with a car wash company in Arizona, he joined the Fulton Schools communications team in 2022.

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