El Paso to Fund UTEP Cyber, Energy Security Center
February 09, 2012 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
The El Paso City Council approved this week a grant agreement with The University of Texas at El Paso to create a Regional Cyber and Energy Security (RCES) Center to test and certify alternative energy products and systems.
Among the center's initial goals will be to develop the methods to secure the commercial and energy systems in the West Texas/Southern New Mexico region against cyber attacks, equipment failures and natural threats, said Ralph Martinez, Ph.D., the George W. Edwards, Jr./El Paso Electric distinguished professor in the College of Engineering and UTEP's director of energy initiatives.
The project is a joint effort between the University's Center for Environmental Resource Management and its Research Institute for Manufacturing and Engineering Systems. Martinez is the project's principal investigator. His co-PI is Ricardo Pineda, Ph.D., chair and professor of industrial, manufacturing and systems engineering.
The city will pay the University more than $3.4 million during the six-year contract that should start in a few weeks. The money will come from the city's franchise fees.
The center will address technical, regulatory, academic and commercial challenges associated with emerging cyber and energy security technologies tied to alternative energy resources, especially distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.
"We have to make the power grids reliable and secure," said Martinez, who referenced several local, national and international examples where energy grid failures led to significant financial problems. He said El Paso's three-day freeze in February 2011 caused an estimated loss of more than $50 million to the business and education sectors.
"The problem is utilities do not invest enough in cyber security infrastructure," he said. "Without the proper protection, system failure could create havoc in a community when you think of medical, business, manufacturing and education. A significant disruption could endanger the population and cost billions of dollars."
The center, which would be located on the UTEP campus, expects to create 85 new jobs throughout the life of the contract to include faculty, staff and graduate students in the colleges of engineering and business administration. The estimated full-time salaries for these new jobs will range from $70,000 to $90,000.
Among the University's potential partners are the U.S. departments of defense, energy and agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, Sandia National Laboratories, El Paso Electric and the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto-based consortium of utilities. The center also plans to associate with colleagues at New Mexico State University to produce engineers trained in modern power systems and El Paso Community College to prepare skilled installation and maintenance technicians.
The center already is in talks with various companies in the oil, energy, water and natural gas industries that are interested in collaborations, Martinez said. He added that a secondary benefit to the center could be decisions by some of these companies to open offices in the Paso del Norte region.
"The economic impact from high-tech industries could be significant," he said. "This area has yet to tap into its solar PV potential, and the RCES Center will be an enabler."
Martinez said the center's scope eventually could encompass energy companies and academic institutions throughout Texas and the Southwest.