A $12.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy given to the University of Arkansas will be used to create a new national research center focused on cybersecurity for electric power utilities, the university said Monday.

In addition to the federal grant, $3.3 million in matching funds are being given from university research partners

The research center will identify and develop solutions for vulnerabilities across the U.S. power grid. The goal is to protect hardware assets, make systems less susceptible to cyberattacks, and to provide reliable electricity delivery if an attack were to occur, the university said.

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“We’re proud to be recognized as a national leader in the area of power electronics research and security. The impact of this work is tremendous. All too frequently we are hearing of how foreign entities are hacking into U.S. computer systems. This center’s mission is directly focused on protecting America’s electric energy delivery system, and we are pleased to have a great team with which to approach these challenges,” Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and designated principal investigator and director of the new center, said in a statement.

All of the University of Arkansas researchers to be assigned to the center are associated with the university’s National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission. Additionally, the center will include faculty from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Carnegie Mellon University, Florida International University, and Lehigh University.

Mantooth currently holds the Twenty-First Century Research Leadership Chair at the College of Engineering and is executive director of the university’s reliable electric power transmission center. He is also executive director of the university’s National Science Foundation industry/university cooperative research center, known as the Grid-Connected Advanced Power Electronic Systems center.  

The cybersecurity center will have specific objectives including protecting core power grid controls and communications infrastructure, building security and privacy protection, and providing security management capabilities and security testing and validation. To achieve these, the researcher will develop software module algorithms that can be loaded onto systems and equipment like fault-current limiters, breakers, measurement units, relays, wireless communications systems, and power-line communications, the university said.

With more reliable delivery of power by reducing outages caused by cyber attacks, the power system stays up and any economic loss from downtime is eliminated, Mantooth said. “This is what we are seeking. And, from a homeland security perspective, the electric power grid in general becomes less susceptible to attack.”

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The Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC), a Little Rock-based electricity generation and transmission cooperative, is set to serve as an industry partner for the center. The AECC is a wholesale power provider for the state’s 17 electric distribution cooperatives. The corporation will serve as the primary beta test site of all the security tools and technologies developed by the center, the university said.

“We look forward to exchanging real-world experience and knowledge with our academic partners,” Robert McClanahan, vice president of information technology for AECC, said in a statement.

The University of Arkansas-led team is one of two chosen by the Energy Department. The other team is led by the University of Illinois and includes the University of California-Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Washington State University.