Are Power Transformers hackable?

There is a revived attention for supply chain attacks after the seize of a Chinese transformer in the port of Houston. While on its way to a US power transmission company – Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) – the 226 ton transformer was rerouted to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque New Mexico for inspection on possible malicious implants.

The sudden inspection happens more or less at the same time that the US government issued a presidential directive aiming for white listing vendors allowed to supply solutions for the US power grid, and excluding others to do so. So my curiosity is raised and additionally triggered by the Wall Street Journal claim that transformers do not contain software-based control systems and are passive devices. Is this really true in 2020? So the question is, are power transformers “hackable” or must we see the inspection exclusively as a step in increasing trade restrictions.


Before looking into potential cyber security hazards related to the transformer, let’s first look at some history of supply chain “attacks” relevant for industrial control systems (ICS). I focus here on supply chain attacks using hardware products because in the area of software products, Trojan horses are quite common.

Many supply chain attacks in the industry are based on having purchased counterfeit products. Frequently resulting in dangerous situations, but generally driven by economic motives and not so much by a malicious intent to damage the production installation. Some examples of counterfeits are:

  • Transmitters – We have seen counterfeit transmitters that didn’t qualify for the intrinsic safety transmitter zone qualifications specified by the genuine product sheet. And as such creating a dangerous potential for explosions in a plant when these products would be installed in zone 1 and zone 0 areas with a potential for the presence of explosive gases.
  • Valves – We have seen counterfeit valves, where mechanical specifications didn’t meet the spec sheet of the genuine product. This might lead to the rupture of the valve resulting in a loss of containment with potential dangerous consequences.
  • Network equipment – On the electronic front we have seen counterfeit Cisco network equipment that could be used to create a potential backdoor in the network.

However it seems that the “attack” here is more an exploit of the asset owner’s vulnerability for low prices (even if they sound ridiculously low), in combination with highly motivated companies trying to earn some fast money, than an intentional and targeted attack on the asset integrity of an installation.

That companies selling these products are often found in Asia, with China as the absolute leader according to reports, is probably caused by a different view / attitude toward patents, standards and intellectual property in a fast growing region and additionally China’s economic size. Not necessarily a plot against an arrogant Western world enemy.

The most spectacular example of such an incident is where counterfeit Cisco equipment ended up in the military networks of the US. But as far as I know, it was also in this case never shown that the equipment’s functionality was maliciously altered. Main problem was a higher failure rate caused by low manufacturing standards, potentially impacting the networks reliability. Never the less also here a security incident because of the potential for malicious functionality.

Also proven malicious incidents have occurred, for instance in China, where computer equipment was sold with already pre-installed malware. Malware not detectable by antivirus engines. So the option to attack industrial control systems through the supply chain certainly exist, but as far as I am aware never succeeded.

But there is always the potential that functionality is maliciously altered, so we need to see above incidents as security breaches and consider them to be a serious cyber security hazard we need to address. Additionally power transformers are quite different from the hardware discussed above, so a supply chain attack on US power grid using power transformers is a different analysis. If it would happen and was detected it would mean end of business for the supplier, so stakes are high and chances that it happens are low. Let’s look now at the case of the power transformer.


For many people, a transformer might not look like an intelligent device. But in today’s world everything in the OT world becomes smart (not excluding the possibility we ourselves might be the exception), so we also have smart power transformers today. Partially surfing on the waves of the smart hype, but also adding new functions that can be targeted.

Of course I have no information on the specifications of the WAPA transformer, but it is a new transformer so probably making use of today’s technology. Since seizing a transformer is not a small thing, transformers used in the power transmission world are designed to carry 345 kilo volts or more and can weigh as much as 410 tons (820.000 lb in the non-metric world), there must be a good reason to do so.

One of the reasons is of course that it is very critical and expensive equipment (can be $5.000.000+) and is built specifically for the asset owner. If it would fail and be damaged, replacement would take a long time. So this equipment must not only be secure, but also be very reliable. So worth an inspection from different viewpoints.

What would be the possibilities for an attacker to use such a huge lump of metal for executing a devious attack on a power grid. Is it really possible, are there scenarios to do so?

Since there are many different types of power transformers, I need to make a choice and decided to focus on what are called conservator transformers, these transformers have some special features and require some active control to operate. Looking at OT security from a risk perspective, I am more interested in if a feasible attack scenario exists – are there exposed vulnerabilities to attack, what would be the threat action – then in a specific technical vulnerability in the equipment or software that make it happen today. To get a picture of what a modern power transformer looks like, the following demo you can play with (demo).

Look for instance at the Settings tab and select the tap position table from where we can control or at minimum monitor the onload tap changes (OLTC). Tap changers select variable turn ratios to either increase or decrease the turn ratio to regulate the output voltage for variations on the input side. Another interesting selection you find when selecting the Home icon, leading you directly to the Buchholz safety relay. Also look at the interface protocol Goose, I would say it all looks very smart.

I hope everyone realizes from this little web demo, that what is frequently called a big lump of dumb metal might actually be very smart and containing a lot more than a view sensors to measure temperature and level as the Wall Street Journal suggests. Like I said I don’t know WAPA’s specification, so maybe they really ordered a big lump of dumb metal but typically when buying new equipment companies look ahead and adopt the new technologies available.

Let’s look in a bit more detail to the components of the conservator power transformer, being a safety function the Buchholz relay is always a good point to start if we want to break something. The relay is trying to prevent something bad from happening, what is this and how does this relay counter this, can we interfere?

A power transformer is filled with insulating oil to insulate and serve as a coolant between the windings. The Buchholz relay connects between the overhead conservator (a tank with insulating oil) and the main oil tank of the transformer body. If a transformer fails, or is overloaded this causes extra heat, heated insulating oil forms gas and the trapped gas presses the insulating oil level further down (driving it into the conservator tank passing the Buchholz relay function) so reducing the insulation between the windings. The lower level could cause an arc, speeding up the process and causing more gas pressure, pressing the insulating oil even more away and exposing the windings.

It is the Buchholz relay’s task to detect this and operate a circuit breaker to isolate the transformer before the fault causes additional damage. If the relay wouldn’t do its task quick enough the transformer windings might be damaged causing a long outage for repair. In principal Buchholz relays, as I know them, are mechanical devices working with float switches to initiate an alarm and the action. So I assume there is not much to tamper with from a cyber point of view.

How about the tap changer? This looks more promising, specifically an on load tap changer (OLTC). There are various interesting scenarios here, can we make step changes that impact the grid? When two or more power transformers work in parallel, can we create out-of-step situations between the different phases by causing differences in operation time?

An essential requirement for all methods of tap changing under load is that circuit continuity must be maintained throughout the tap stepping operation. So we need a make-before-break principle of operation, which causes at least momentary, that a connection is made simultaneously to two adjacent taps on the transformer. This results in a circulating current between these two taps. To limit this current, an impedance in the form of either resistance or inductive reactance is required. If not limited the circulating current would be a short-circuit between taps. Thus time also plays a role. Voltage change between taps is a design characteristic of the transformer, this is normally small approximately 1.25% of the nominal voltage. So if we want to do something bad, we need to make a bigger step than expected. The range seems to be somewhere between +2% and -16% in 18 steps, so quite a jump is possible if we can increase the step size.

To make it a bit more complex, a transformer can be designed with two tap changers one for in phase changes and one for out of phase changes, this also might provide us with some options to cause trouble.

So plenty of ingredients seem to be available, we need to do things in a certain sequence, we need to do it within a certain time, and we need to limit the change to prevent voltage disturbances. Step changers use a motor drive, and motor drives are controlled by motor drive units, so it looks like we have an OT function. Again a bit larger attack surface than a few sensors and a lump of metal would provide us. And then of course we saw Goose in the demo, a protocol with issues, and we have the IEDs that control all this and provide protection, a wider scope to investigate and secure but not part of the power transformer.

Is this all going to happen? I don’t think so, the Chinese company making the transformers is a business, and a very big one. If they would be caught tampering with the power transformers than that is bad for business. Can they intentionally leave some vulnerabilities in the system, theoretically yes but since multiple parties (the delivery contains also non-Chinese parts) are involved it is not likely to happen. But I have seen enough food for a more detailed analysis and inspection to find it very acceptable that also power transformers are assessed for their OT security posture when used in critical infrastructure.

So on the question are power transformers hackable, my vote would be yes. On the question will Sandia find any malicious tampering, my vote would be no. Good to run an inspection but bad to create so much fuss around it.


There is no relationship between my opinions and publications in this blog and the views of my employer in whatever capacity.


Sinclair Koelemij

3 thoughts on “Are Power Transformers hackable?”

  1. Good analysis, Sinclair! That is essentially what I’ve concluded, especially in this post https://tomalrichblog.blogspot.com/2020/05/the-plot-thickens.html and the two immediately after it. There are definitely some ways (although none of them are at all easy) that a cyberattack could cause a transformer to fail or even melt down, but the big question is why the vendor – or the Chinese government, for that matter – would want to do this. It would rightly be seen as an act of war, and the Chinese are bound to come out on the losing end of that deal. They’re not stupid, even if they were really motivated to attack the US grid.

    1. Tom, I understand your view-point, but would like to offer a slightly different perspective:

      1) For certain configurations of transformers, especially the ones that use VFDs for adjusting speed for cooling fans, it may not be too difficult to attack them (https://hrcak.srce.hr/file/247270). In the lab, our team demonstrated how the capacitor banks in a VFD could be blown up quite easily by altering only a few lines of code…(https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8750894). Over the last decade, we have seen increasingly sophisticated attacks being perpetrated in the ICS space, given nation state resources and motivations.

      2) Although I may be preaching to the choir, one of the things that makes cyberspace so attractive for nation states is the attribute of ‘plausible deniability’. For instance, when Stuxnet was first unleashed on the Iranian centrifuges, initial failures were classified as reliability issues. It took the engineers quite some time to figure out that they were in fact victims of a sophisticated cyberattack. I would be remiss if I do not mention Ukraine which has suffered multiple cyberattacks on their electrical grid infrastructure (despite it being quite difficult to perpetuate). The last attack being particularly interesting, where the protective relays were left in a ‘stand-by mode’ (unable to perform their intended safety function which could have led to serious damage). To answer your question ‘why the Chinese, in their right minds, would ever want to do this’….I would say, much of this is capability in reverse…why does the US have nuclear weapons, despite having the world’s strongest military, many times over…’just in case’!

    2. Tom, while I understand your post, I want to offer a slightly different perspective:

      1) As you may already know, for certain configurations of transformers, especially those that rely on forced-cooling technology or those that are equipped with variable frequency drives to adjust fan speeds etc., the VFD’s may be targeted to cause damage to the transformer (https://hrcak.srce.hr/file/247270). In prior work, our team demonstrated how the capacitor banks in a VFD could be exploded by changing only a few lines of code (https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8750894). Over the past several years we have noticed how cyberattacks in the ICS space have become increasingly sophisticated, given nation state resources and motivations (i’m thinking Crashoveride, Stuxnet, TRISIS etc.).

      2) Although I may be preaching to the choir, one of the aspects that makes cyberspace so attractive for nation states to advance political objectives is the idea of ‘plausible deniability’. Not only is attribution difficult, cyberattacks are often masqueraded as genuine safety and reliability issues. When Stuxnet was first launched, the engineers at the plant initially classified the centrifuge failures as ‘reliability issues’. It took some time for the engineers to realize that they were in fact, being targeted by a sophisticated cyberattack. One plausible answer to your question, ‘why the Chinese in their right minds would ever want to do such a thing’…would be that much of this is capability in reserve…’why does the US have nuclear weapons, given that it has the strongest conventional military in the world’….’well, just in case’!

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