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Weapons of mass destruction: Navigating large scale power failures

During the summer of 2003, rolling electrical blackouts struck North America, leaving more than 55 million people in the dark from Ontario and New York to Ohio

What the incident revealed, was an infrastructure of power grids significantly more interrelated and unstable than previously thought.

From a public safety standpoint, it led to new questions: What if a weapon of mass destruction left an entire state without power? How long would it take to restore it? What are the possible repercussions?

Two electrical and computer engineers at The Ohio State University are trying to find out.

Ness ShroffAtilla EryilmazNess Shroff, chaired professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) and Computer Science and Engineering, as well as ECE associate professor, Atilla Eryilmaz, are leading two teams working on solutions to such mass-scale destructive scenarios under a multi-university project issued by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).  

“What we are looking for is to essentially study the impact of weapons of mass destruction on very large-scale attacks that could occur on the U.S. homeland and how they would affect the infrastructure,” Shroff said.

In this age of integrated systems, he said, weather anomalies and cyber attacks make the reality of such large-scale outages more possible. Infrastructure failures could include electrical networks, communication systems or even water supplies.

As Eryilmaz explained, the utilities people depend upon everyday are actually powered through “an intricate balance between functionally independent but operationally inter-dependent systems that traverse physical devices, information networks and users.”

Traditionally, he said, researchers model these systems so any potential failures are studied in isolation, assuming the remaining components of the grids are stable.

However, Eryilmaz said, this same assumption is not valid under the mass-scale shutdown scenarios the multi-university teams are exploring.

“If you look especially at electricity, it’s kind of interesting right now because there is a fair amount of interdependence that exists between the communication systems and the electrical systems. If one goes down, you could have cascading failures,” Shroff said.

The attacks don’t necessarily have to be man made either, he said.

For example, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was considered the second most destructive “super storm” in United States history resulting in a damage estimate of $68 billion and 233 lives lost. It was second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with 1,833 lives lost and $108 billion in damages.

“These large-scale impacts cause propagating failures across multiple layers, resulting in the depletion of critical resources and pushing the multi-layer system into an overloaded operating regime,” Eryilmaz said. “Our project takes a multi-disciplinary approach, encompassing power systems, communication, control, and algorithm design to address the need for fundamentally new multi-layer management strategies for protecting and efficiently utilizing critical resources in the event of high-impact and large-scale disruptions."

What DTRA is looking for, Shroff said, is less about potential hacking scenarios and more about devastating power failures that could occur across an entire region or state, possibly associated with an electromagnetic pulse, nuclear explosion or historic weather anomaly.

“Something that is just very huge and they are kind of concerned about how to combat against it. The first piece of that puzzle is how do you come up with a good model for that? Then, how do you figure out what sort of impact that attack would be? Finally, how can you come up with solutions that allow you to work within cost constraints that we all have, to mitigate the effects as much as possible,” he said. Shroff and Eryilmaz won their current funding awards through DTRA’s Thrust Area 2: Network Sciences program. Shroff’s falls under “Modeling, Analysis and Control for Robust Interdependent Networks,” whereas Eryilmaz works via, “Adaptive Algorithms for Overload Control Under Cascading Failures in Multi-Layer Networks.”

The first review meeting of their efforts took place earlier this month, Shroff said. He leads a team of engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University. Meanwhile, Eryilmaz leads another team made up of engineers at California Institute of Technology and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

About the researchers:

Dr. Ness Shroff holds the Ohio Eminent Scholar Chaired Professorship in Networking and Communications at The Ohio State University in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Computer Science and Engineering. He is interested in fundamental research on problems in learning, design, security, control, and performance of complex inter-connected networks such as communication, storage, cloud, social, and cyberphysical systems.

Dr. Atilla Eryilmaz is an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. His research is based in the understanding and management of Complex Networked Systems that naturally arise in a variety of real-world settings, including, in particular, the efficient resource allocation in communication networks, the distributed control of cyber-physical systems, the intelligent operation of social networks, and the robust operation of power grids.

About ECE:

Since the late 1800s, The Ohio State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) has grown from a handful of graduates to more than 10,000 alumni today. With 58 faculty members and 13 researchers, ECE innovations are impacting lives daily through the areas of analog and RF electronic circuits, communications/signal processing, computer and digital systems, computer vision/image processing, control systems, electromagnetics/remote sensing/microwaves, optics and photonics, medical technologies, nanotechnology/electronic materials, robotics/intelligent transportation, networking and sustainable energy as well as power systems. In 2014, the U.S. News and World report listed Ohio State’s ECE program 18th in the nation and it remains number one in Ohio.