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Enhancing cyber security in the energy transition

Harnessing blockchains and new cryptography methods for enhanced cyber security in the energy transition.

The world we live in is changing and the way we interact with energy grids is evolving more than ever.

Our commitments to tackle the climate crisis by building a smart and flexible power grid, combined with the energy security issues highlighted by the war in Ukraine, puts the energy sector at a pivotal juncture, where the transition to more sustainable energy sources is not just a preference, but a global goal. As this transition accelerates, the role of digitalization becomes more evident, leaning towards a confluence between the energy sector and cutting-edge technologies. Among these technologies, the combination of blockchains and novel cryptographic methods emerge as potential candidates in ensuring that this digital revolution remains secure. In this article, I will dive in the transformative potential of these technologies, highlighting how they can sustain cyber security measures and ensure a safer energy transition for everyone.

Historically, the energy sector, with its complex infrastructure and critical importance to our daily lives, has always been susceptible to cyber-attacks. Disruptive incidents, such as failures in data protection practices exposing personal information of customer's, have not been well prioritized so far. From power grid shutdowns in Ukraine to data breaches, the sector has witnessed a multitude of challenges that highlight the need for robust cyber security measures to protect critical information. In 2022, 10.7% of observed cyber-attacks targeted the energy industry, according to the X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2023. While traditional, not very robust, protocols have fallen short, recent years have seen a surge in innovative solutions to protect critical information. Blockchains, originally the backbone of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, offer decentralized digital ledgers (digital records) that ensure data integrity and transparency. On the other hand, the symbiosis between blockchains and foundational techniques, such as zero-knowledge proofs or homomorphic encryption, have the potential to provide an unprecedented level of privacy.

Blockchains record transactions across multiple computers in a way that ensures that the data can only be modified once the participants in the network reach consensus. Their decentralized nature makes blockchains very resilient to malicious attacks, as altering any information inside the network would require the consensus of the majority of the participants.

In the energy sector, this unique set of characteristics can be particularly transformative. As our grids become smarter and more interconnected, they will generate an increasing amount of data, from consumer energy usage patterns to real-time supply metrics. The integrity and authenticity of this data is paramount. Blockchains ensure that once the data is recorded, it remains immutable and transparent, providing stakeholders confidence in the authenticity of the data.

In the past, we have seen a wave of pilot projects and real-world applications. For instance, the Brooklyn Microgrid project in New York uses blockchain technology to allow residents to trade self-generated energy in an automated and secured way, showcasing the potential of decentralized, cyber security enhanced energy markets. However, most projects failed to gain traction primarily because the technology was not sufficiently mature at that time. Nevertheless, the situation has since changed. In recent years, there has been a substantial advancement in the capabilities of blockchain technology, where the technology is significantly more mature. This has to do with the cost and speed of transactions, consensus mechanisms and layer two functionalities.

The evolution of energy markets, especially with the rise of flexibility markets, has created new opportunities to incentivize flexibility prosumers to use their decentralized energy resources to help maintain the balance between generation/demand and relieve congestion on the network, as we transition to low carbon electricity networks. But these opportunities often come with significant challenges, notably in data security. As prosumers play an increasingly active role in these markets, their energy data becomes a crucial component of the system. Therefore, one question arises: How can we ensure that this data remains private, yet still functional within the market dynamics?

Fundamentally, two cutting-edge cryptographic techniques stand out: homomorphic encryption and zero-knowledge proofs. Homomorphic encryption is a form of encryption that allows computations on ciphertexts, generating encrypted results which, when decrypted, match the results of the operations as if they were performed on the plain data. For energy markets, this means that customer energy data can be encrypted and still used for necessary computations without ever revealing the actual data. For instance, an energy provider could determine the total consumption of a range of houses in a neighbourhood without accessing individual household data. This ensures data privacy while retaining functionality. Additionally, protecting the privacy and security of users, particularly vulnerable consumers, is essential as we digitalize our energy infrastructure. By using techniques like homomorphic encryption, operators can aggregate and anonymize data, ensuring grid resilience and responsiveness without compromising individual privacy. Zero-knowledge proofs allow one party to prove to another that a statement is true without revealing any specific information about the statement itself. For energy data, this means a consumer could prove they've adhered to a consumption schedule or exported into the grid without revealing the exact details of their consumption or export. Essentially, it offers validation without exposure.

The dilemma between these methods is linked to the principle of data access, is it better to have encrypted data that is accessible and usable by all (homomorphic encryption) or is it better to restrict data access entirely, providing only proofs of validity (zero-knowledge proofs)? The decision hinges on the specific needs and priorities of the market and application. Do we need seamless operability and broader data usefulness, or do we need a more stringed privacy protocol that might limit data functionality?

In the rapidly evolving landscape of the energy transition and their adjacent flexibility markets, the combination of blockchain technologies with homomorphic encryption or zero-knowledge proofs offers a unique and promising synergy to solve the dilemma. Blockchains, with their decentralized and transparent nature, provide a trustworthy platform for energy transactions and data storage. When combined with homomorphic encryption, stakeholders can perform essential computations on encrypted data directly within the blockchain, ensuring data utility without compromising on privacy. On the other hand, integrating zero-knowledge proofs ensures that while data remains private and accessible only by its owner, its authenticity and compliance can be verified by others on the blockchain without revealing specifics. This combination amplifies the security and privacy of energy data and fosters a more transparent and efficient flexibility market, where transactions are traceable, data integrity is maintained, and consumer privacy is upheld, all of which are crucial for the successful evolution of the energy sector.

Digitalization will inevitably generate additional datasets from customers and introduce new data demands for the market. As a result, data and technology systems will become central to the energy sector, necessitating robust protection. History has shown that in cyber security, proactive measures are always more effective than reactive solutions. As we navigate this evolving landscape, one must question: Are our current tools and strategies sufficiently forward-looking to safeguard the future of the energy sector or do we need to rethink our approach to be truly prepared?

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11/2/2023 8:00:00 AM

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Andrei Manea

Andrei Manea

Consultant