The popularity of solar energy is growing every year. Solar energy is environmentally friendly, safe, quiet, and affordable. Solar systems are already actively used to provide electricity to private homes, and cars, and portable versions are taken with them on hikes.

Alternative energy is a separate direction of energy, which uses equipment, fuel, and installations that are less common than traditional ones. This way of obtaining energy is more promising and environmentally friendly. The energy source is renewable, so it will not run out. By 2050, solar power generation could provide nearly half of the U.S. energy supply

In recent years, the cost of renewable energy developments and technologies has decreased significantly, making such products more affordable for the average user. Often the public sector takes on innovative tasks, which makes the final development cheaper. The return on investment for ordinary consumers today can be as short as 5 years, depending on the amount of money invested.

The availability of a backup energy source is becoming a necessity, especially considering how often nature and weather have been testing our mettle lately. Aging infrastructure in places where power grids have not yet been updated does not add confidence. It can take days or even weeks to fix a power outage, but with a backup power system in place, you won’t have to give up comfort during this period.

For these reasons, the construction of “smart” power distribution networks, so-called Smart Grids, which allow the rational use of energy, is underway all over the world. They are usually automated and connected to the Internet, which raises a natural interest in renewable energy cyber security.

Cybersecurity of Photovoltaic Systems

Photovoltaic systems, as critical components of the power grid, are increasingly dependent on standard information technology, computing, and network infrastructure for their operation and maintenance. However, this dependence makes PV systems more vulnerable and exposed to the risk of cyberattacks. Recently, reports of cyber attacks on PV systems have increased significantly. 

A few years ago, Dutch researcher Willem Westerhof discovered the vulnerability of solar panels to remote hacking. This means that hackers and attackers can illegally infiltrate solar panel networks, control the voltage, and even shut down entire energy complexes.

Westerhof says he discovered vulnerabilities in SMA Solar Technology’s internet-connected inverters back in late 2016, and 14 of the bugs he found were given CVE identifiers.  The researcher disclosed the theoretical and practical nuances of his attack to the manufacturer of the vulnerable equipment and shared information about the possible consequences with government agencies and regulators.

The specialist explains that the vulnerabilities allow for a remote attack on vulnerable inverters and prevent them from functioning properly, triggering a massive solar panel outage. Modern interconnected power systems react to such disturbances very keenly and in an emergency start “pulling” energy from neighbors, depending on which neighboring country has a surplus to share. But while energy production and consumption are usually predicted and regulated (for example, during the 2015 solar eclipse, European specialists had plenty of time to prepare), an attack on vulnerable SMA solar panels can completely stall energy production, resulting in an unexpected overload on the rest of the “links” of the grid.

According to Westerhof, the effect can be compared to an unexpected solar eclipse, when all solar panels suddenly stop working. For example, in Germany, photovoltaic modules periodically cover 30-50% of the country’s total electricity needs. The researcher writes that an attack arranged at the right moment could deprive an entire country of 50% of its electricity. Given the “topography” of modern power grids, such an attack would entail a real domino effect and could affect the entire continent, causing global blackouts, for example, throughout Europe.

In his interview with BBC, Westerhof said that a cyber attack electrical grid of a large scale could lead to serious consequences. The fact is that the power grids of states around the world are interconnected to exchange electricity in case of an emergency. This allows electricity to be transmitted in case of excess and received in case of shortage. In this way, there is a balance of expected energy supply and energy consumption, and any disruption to this balance can result in the whole family being disconnected. In addition, some countries cover almost half of their electricity consumption with solar power. A successful example of such an effective use of solar panels is Germany. Such cyber attacks on power grid could have catastrophic and devastating consequences for the population.

Thus, despite the vast amount of information about the cybersecurity of power plants, the topic still scares many people. Employees and business owners alike don’t know what software to buy, what to spend money on, and what to refrain from buying. This happens because, along with theoretical information on the subject, there is little information directly about the types of risks faced by representatives of specific industries. After all, those companies that have successfully implemented cybersecurity systems rarely publicize what measures they have taken. As a result, there is widespread awareness of information threats, but few people know what to do.

How to Improve the Cybersecurity of Solar Panel Systems

There are a few universal rules that do not only apply to the power industry but are relevant everywhere.

Using a VPN

Firstly, if a business or firm is working with the Internet of Things (IoT), many devices are connected to a single network. When traffic is transmitted to the network, hackers can intercept information and unforeseen data leakage due to a breach in the system. Enhancing Security cannot be provided without installing a VPN application directly on the router. In this case, you will ensure privacy and anonymity within your company when transferring information between a large number of devices.

Hiring white hat hackers

Preventing danger is just as important as protecting yourself. Many solar companies near me are adopting the following practices. They hire so-called white hat hackers and ask them to do a vulnerability assessment of a computer system, server, or network. White hackers think like real cybercriminals. They have special hacking programs, they know the techniques. However, their goal is to use as many tools as possible to test the viability of a system. Recognize weaknesses and then strengthen them.

Using Secure Passwords

Following the release of Willem Westerhof’s research, SMA asked owners of solar panels they manufacture to change their default passwords. Indeed, many users fall victim to hackers simply because they use insecure passwords. A strong password consists of 8 or more characters: letters of different cases, numbers, and other characters.

Using Protective IT Systems

When it comes to the power secure solar industry, the sector faces challenges that traditional domains are unfamiliar with. Namely, rapid development, unbundling, and the acquisition cycle. The innovative nature of renewable products creates an ever-changing ecosystem that is not easy to protect. 

Consequently, the following elements need to be implemented.

  • Components to protect endpoints in the industrial network (particularly engineering and operations stations).
  • Industrial network monitoring tools that verify network integrity and can inspect application protocols at a deep level.
  • Programs designed to protect process servers, engineering, and operational workstations.

To summarize, any software that is implemented to protect the IT infrastructure of the electric power industry should perform the following functions: block all applications other than authorized ones, enable administrators to identify devices that can be connected to those industrial points that need special protection, ensure that there are no unauthorized attempts to connect to Wi-Fi networks.

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