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UTEP, PNNL Partner to Train Cybersecurity Hydropower Experts

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has launched a new program at UTEP

Hydropower provides six percent of the United States’ electricity supply and is one of the oldest forms of energy generation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But as the nation works to modernize the electric grid, hydropower — like other technologies — is increasingly relying on digital control systems and creating an urgent need to train and recruit the next generation of cybersecurity experts focused on technology and governance.

Woman presenting to a group of individuals
Penny McKenzie introduces the Training, Outreach, and Recruitment of Cybersecurity in Hydropower program to students at The University of Texas at El Paso.

Now, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has established the Training Outreach and Recruitment for Cybersecurity in Hydropower (TORCH) program at The University of Texas at El Paso. UTEP is the first university to implement TORCH, a program funded by the Water Power Technologies Office within the Department of Energy.

“We are extremely excited about the continued collaboration with PNNL, which benefits our students by bringing real-world problems to our classrooms and research endeavors,” said Salamah Salamah, Ph.D., UTEP professor and chair of computer science. “The TORCH program exposes our students to state-of-the-art technologies and advances in an area of significant importance to the nation, namely the security of hydropower systems. The combination of UTEP’s strengths in cybersecurity and the TORCH program will enhance our students’ preparedness for impactful careers in the different areas of cybersecurity.”

TORCH creates opportunities for students to form their education and support a career path in hydropower.

“It can be very difficult to find students that are interested in cybersecurity and also have an engineering background. Typically, there are either cyber students or engineering students,” said Penny McKenzie, PNNL cybersecurity engineer and principal investigator. “TORCH is designed to bridge that gap.”

Staff at PNNL including co-principal investigator and Systems Engineer Chelsea Gonzales and Consuelo Ramirez, who is a UTEP software engineering graduate student, worked to develop the curriculum.

“TORCH taught me the importance of implementing cybersecurity practices in hydropower,” said Ramirez. “I’m excited to bring the curriculum I worked so hard to help develop back to El Paso and share the knowledge and insight I’ve gained with others. It’s a great initiative and hopefully it entices them to take a workshop and learn more.”

The curriculum was first piloted at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, WA.

“We’ve met many people at conferences and universities who are excited about TORCH and want to help develop curriculum and give feedback to improve it,” said Gonzales. “We’re continuously refining the curriculum for the maximum benefit of our students.”

The TORCH team is taking their learnings and working with UTEP to transition the curriculum to a one-credit course offered to students in spring 2024. PNNL staff will also engage with students at career fairs to give a sneak peek of the activities and encourage them to enroll in the course. This spring, TORCH will also partner with minority serving institutions including Columbia Basin College and Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana.

“We're trying to make the program exciting, with not only hands on activities, but also knowledge transfer from researchers at PNNL and industry partners,” said McKenzie. “It’s really fun when we start transitioning this over to the students. We see their eyes light up and they say, ‘Oh, I didn't think protecting hydropower facilities with cybersecurity was a real thing!’”

Mitigating the risks to digitized hydropower control systems requires a new generation of professionals to enter the career field — one that is vigilant about potential threats and has the expertise to react appropriately. The TORCH team is working hard to prepare and develop those qualities and skills in students with interest in entering the field.

“I think that national security cannot be overemphasized, and this is a really great opportunity for us to help foster relationships between students and industry,” said Danielle Young, PNNL civil and environmental engineer and TORCH project manager. “We want to help young achievers get into areas of work that they can feel passionate about and feel purpose with, and hopefully that might be in hydropower.”

McKenzie, Gonzales and Young are also exploring opportunities to train current personnel at hydro facilities. They hope to begin outreach to a broader audience, including K-12 students, to captivate their interests in cybersecurity careers in hydropower.

Last Updated on February 01, 2024 at 12:00 AM | Originally published February 01, 2024

By MC Staff UTEP Marketing and Communications