Fiber. It’s not just for breakfast. It’s for your internet connection, your television, your business, your email, and much more.
TVA has long used optical fiber to communicate between its control centers and substations. And in 2018, it began the installation of an additional 2,700 miles of new fiber optic throughout the Valley, offering unused – or dark – fiber to our local power companies to help them keep their communications up to date.
And all was good.
"Or was it?" asked Stephen Craven, an electrical engineer responsible for substation communication for TVA's Transmission and Power Supply. Looking at the fiber and all that it does, Craven had a good idea: Make TVA's connection to it faster, safer, and more private.
"The original fiber equipment we used was created for the telephone company," he said. The Synchronous Optical Network, commonly referred to as SONET equipment, "was perfect for our needs because our critical circuits controlling the power grid were separated from less trusted ones."
The SONET system that ran transmission communications reached the end of its lifespan in 2020. While able to carry more traffic, the packet-based equipment that replaced SONET does not provide the same circuit isolation and ability to handle fiber breaks.
Craven took advantage of the technology switchover, developing an architecture for the new packet-based equipment that could withstand cyber and physical attacks.
"I realized there was a way to do things better," he said.
His engineering design delivered the most critical messages over long transmission lines within six milliseconds while instantaneously flipping over to a backup path should the fiber ever break.
"This new system will be robust," Craven said. "The Grid of Tomorrow demands that our transmission is safe, secure, and resilient."
For his development of this secure communication architecture, Craven has been awarded the Ike Zeringue Engineer-of-the-Year Award – TVA's highest distinction – for 2023. The award is named for O.J. "Ike" Zeringue, an engineer who, during his career, served TVA as president, chief operating officer, and chief nuclear officer.
This inventiveness comes naturally to Craven as he is a third-generation TVA employee. His grandfather and father both served as engineers for the company.
As a youth, Craven planned to break the family mold and do something different—and he ultimately did.
With a bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a master's degree from Georgia Tech, and a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, Craven worked as a computer chip designer, security researcher, and professor at UTC before he came to TVA in 2013.
"My father and grandfather enjoyed working at TVA and were happy in their careers," he said, chuckling about the winding path that brought him to where he feels he most belongs.
"I love it here at TVA," Craven said. "That's because I know I'm helping people, which gives me motivation to always put my best foot forward."
As winner of the Ike Zeringue Award, Stephen Craven automatically entered the Federal Engineer of the Year, which will be announced on Feb. 24 in Washington, D.C.