Global design-build giant SNC-Lavalin Inc., Montreal, and leading Canadian cybersecurity researcher Carleton University have inked a new R&D deal to thwart attempts to hack power grids. The agreement enables the firm, whose global power work includes developing and operating power plants and transmission-distribution systems, to test grid-protection innovations in Carleton lab space with on-campus research support. The Ottawa university is the only one in Canada to offer a program in communications engineering, and its Global Cybersecurity Resource program is a founding leader of a global network formed last year by 14 universities and tech incubators in 10 countries to boost cybersecurity knowledge.

The R&D effort with SNC-Lavalin will focus on IT network safety and keeping hackers from exploiting power-grid internet connectivity to cause disruptions, said Fred Afagh, Carleton interim dean of engineering and design. It comes amid rising concern about grid vulnerability in both Canada and the U.S. Canadian authorities raised alarms in 2016 over 25 attempts by hackers working on behalf of other nations to infiltrate the nation’s infrastructure, including its power grid. The FBI and the Dept. of Homeland Security released a joint alert last month that “Russian government cyber actors” were aggressively targeting power plants and other infrastructure, gaining access to controls at one power generator.

The new venture will explore grid protections, including metering systems that measure how much power individual households or businesses are using and report it back to the power company, Afagh said. In recent years, millions of smart meters have been deployed in Canada. “The power distribution network is one of the most major concerns because of the autonomy introduced into [its] infrastructure,” he said. “It is a daunting problem. We like to solve daunting problems.” He said SNC-Lavalin will supply components to simulate “the exact problems outside within the lab environment,” with work to start in September.