What is being done to prevent power grid attacks?

CHARLOTTE — Attacks to our power grid have been happening for decades, right here in the Carolinas and across the country.

When the lights go out, the consequences can be deadly. So what’s being done to prevent them?

Channel 9 has covered just how vulnerable we are to criminals, and we’ve gone to local and state officials asking what they’re doing to fix the problem. Channel 9′s Genevieve Curtis found out that research happening in North Carolina may play a key role in finding a solution.

After seeing just how vulnerable the power grid can be after the Moore County attacks, Curtis started researching what can be done to better protect our infrastructure. It led her to the North Carolina State University campus, where researchers are working on some of the most important ways to modernize our power grid.

‘It should have the capability to bounce back’

At the FREEDM Systems Research Center, some of the state’s brightest minds are leading the way to improve how we power our lives.

When you think about how much we depend on electricity to power our homes, smartphones, computers and even cars, it might be surprising to learn that the electric grid has gone largely unchanged for decades.

“Why does the power grid need modernizing?” Curtis asked Dr. Ning Lu, a professor at NC State.

“Our old power grid has one major problem: It’s not sustainable,” he said.

At the FREEDM Systems Center, students, researchers and industry partners are working to solve that problem. Researchers have long known our grid is vulnerable to attacks that compromise our national security. The director of the FREEDM Systems Center, Dr. Iqbal Hussain, explained they’re trying to create a more resilient grid.

“We try to design systems such that it can bounce back if there is a failure due to a national disaster,” Hussain said. “It should have the capability to bounce back.”

“Even if a substation is taken out... the power can be maintained or restored,” he added.

What does a more modern grid look like?

Substations are hubs of power that gets transmitted over long distances to thousands of homes and businesses. Researchers said a modern grid would include “microgrids,” which are smaller, self-sufficient systems that have their own sources of power -- like solar panels.

Microgrids can operate independently in the event of a power outage.

“Instead of it depending on the main grid... we can generate it ourselves and supply it to our neighbor,” Dr. Lu said.

Microgrids could lessen the impact of an attack on the main grid, making it less disruptive and less devastating. That could lower the motivation for attackers.

Dr. Lu said some gas stations are becoming microgrids by adding solar panels and can use electric car chargers as a source of power when a community doesn’t have any.

New tech in our world also sparks new challenges -- it creates more entry points to the main grid.

“It is easier for an attacker to launch a massive attack on all of these smaller devices. As a result, the whole system will be brought down,” Dr. Lu said.

Dr. Lu’s students are studying how systems could detect cyber attacks. Their goal is to design a mechanism that one day could recognize and block those attacks.

“We identify these small vibrations in voltage or frequency which means someone is trying to bring the system down,” she explained.

Researchers say changes to our electric grid are coming. How soon they’ll happen is hard to tell -- costs, consumers and public policy all play a factor in when those changes could happen.

With a rise in attacks on our critical infrastructure, the work at the FREEDM Systems Center powers on.

“The urgency is there,” Hussain told Curtis. “The events that happen from time to time, are a reminder to us that the urgency hasn’t gone away. We have to keep working.”

>> You can find our extensive coverage on our power grid system, from what’s being done to prevent other attacks, to your rights if you lose power for days. It’s all on our special web page -- Click here for more.

(WATCH RELATED: State lawmakers propose power grid protections after attacks)