Are Solar Panels Vulnerable to Hackers?

CC BY-ND 2.0. Kimco Realty

With the rise of internet-connected devices, it seems that the threat of any piece of our lives being hacked is growing exponentially. The prospect of a smart, interconnected energy grid being vulnerable to attack by malicious hackers has lead to many experts warning that safeguards should be put in place before we move too far in that direction, but a new study says that even the energy generating devices themselves could be vulnerable.

Dutch researcher Willem Westerhof found that the inverters in solar panels, the part that converts the electricity generated by the panels into electricity that can be used by the grid, had 17 different vulnerabilities that could be taken advantage of by hackers.

The issue is that the inverters are internet connected, which means that hackers could potentially remotely access and control the inverters, altering the flow of electricity which could overload the system and cause instability in grid. That instability could then cause power outages. A field study to test this idea found that it was indeed a possibility though Westerhof is not releasing the details of his findings lest any potential criminals are looking for inspiration.

The good news is that several inverters would have to be compromised at once to cause any significant issues in the grid and even then it would be unlikely to cause a total black out. The even better news is that this is preventable.

When new solar panels are installed, users should change any default passwords. The other really hack proof solution is to disconnect the inverters from the internet, which would remove the weakness completely.

"Solar producers should seek to isolate the products from the internet ASAP," said Dave Palmer, director of technology at cyber-security company Darktrace to the BBC. "And [they should] also review their physical access security to reduce the risk of a local attack from someone physically breaking into their facilities."

This is yet another example of how having everything connected to the internet, while really convenient, also introduces a host of new problems. For a clean energy smart grid to really take off, we'll need protections in place, even down to the lowly power inverter.