GRAND FORKS — A Department of Energy grant announced in September marks the first major federal award for UND’s recently-established cybersecurity program, an engineering professor said last week.
UND researchers will work alongside partners at Iowa State University, ComEd and software firm Kevala to develop a software tool to protect what are known as distributed energy resources, which include solar panels and wind turbines as well as electric vehicle chargers.
The research group has been awarded $3.5 million for the project, with UND receiving $517,000 for its share. The project is attached to the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
“There’s been a big push from the administration about how we can put UND on the map in cybersecurity,” said Prakash Ranganathan, an associate professor of electrical engineering and director of UND’s Center for Cyber Security Research. “We’re trying to grow, and part of that is going after federal dollars.”
The federal grant is one of the first indicators of progress for UND’s push into cybersecurity. In 2018, the College of Engineering and Mines established a dedicated cybersecurity degree program, and UND students have competed in recent years in the Department of Energy’s CyberForce competition, where university students compete in mock cyberattacks and protect their own networks from each other.
CyberForce is itself one part of the federal government’s bid to build up cybersecurity nationwide. UND’s half-million-dollar award is one part of some $39 million in research funding announced by the Biden administration to go toward distributed energy resources alone.
Cybersecurity is still a relatively small part of the college; 67 students were enrolled in cybersecurity degree programs in fall 2023, and the Center for Cyber Security Research employs three full-time staff.
As for the project itself: The research group is focusing on distributed energy resources that connect to the internet and use the cloud to operate or share data, Ranganathan said. Most electric utilities also rely on the cloud for data sharing nowadays, he added.
“The cyber threat is very broad, whether it’s data breaches or secure authentication,” Ranganathan said.
An internet connection opens these entities to increased risks of cyberattacks.
Cyberattacks can interfere with everyday life in small ways, like over- or undercharging electric vehicles to damage their battery or shut them down, but they can also exploit vulnerabilities in the electric grid to cause brownouts or blackouts.
“We’re very excited for this project and we want to do a good job on this,” Ranganathan said.
Joshua Irvine covers K-12 and higher education, as well as the Grand Forks County Commission. He joined the Grand Forks Herald in October 2023.