President-Elect Trump has set terrorism abatement and infrastructure reconstruction among his top administration priorities. Attention to threats against America’s vital and vulnerable energy grid combines both urgent needs.
Foreign and home-grown attacks upon America’s sprawling, complex, and fragile infrastructure of power lines and control stations were never contemplated throughout the system’s more than century-long creation. Nevertheless, coordinated assaults upon a small number of these soft targets can produce devastatingly expansive and long-lasting service disruptions.
As reported in The Wall Street Journal, a carefully staged attack on the Metcalf, California, power station in April 2013 may well have been a rehearsal for just such an event. Just after midnight, a small group of armed people slipped into an underground vault near Highway 101 just outside San Jose.
After cutting communication cables, a sniper knocked out 17 giant transformers that fed electricity to the Silicon Valley. Although power was successfully rerouted to avoid a blackout, the event caused about $16 million in damage and required 27 days to fully restore operations.
Jon Wellinghoff, who then chaired the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), told Congress, the White House, and federal agencies that, “If the attack were replicated around the country, it could take down the entire electrical grid.”
He feared that domestic terrorists might be planning to do just that.
Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey agreed. He observed that the attack was carried out in a “disciplined military fashion” which was no mere act of “hooliganism,” but rather, “a systematic attempt to take down the electric grid.”
The Metcalf facility was hit again in 2014 during security upgrades.
The incident triggered 14 alarms for four hours before utility employees called for security.
Soon afterwards, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Senior Security Director Stephanie Douglas explained that her 26-person department with responsibility to protect 900 substations plus pipelines lacked necessary resources and corporate clout to respond earlier.
A spokesman subsequently told The Wall Street Journal that the utility now has a $200 million program which includes better security equipment, more training and hiring.
In 2013, the response to a slashing of fiber-optic communication and control cables which serve the Liberty substation west of Phoenix occurred more than two weeks after alarm bells — imagined to be false — first began ringing. The utility company’s security head subsequently reported that a perimeter fence had been cut open, a steel door to a control building was “peeled back like a sardine can,” computer cabinets were pried open, and the security cameras were useless.
Eight of the 10 cameras were either broken or pointed to sky — and most had been out of operation for a year or more.
Liberty was hit again two months later. This time, only two operable security cameras out of the 16 total installed after the first break-in showed that two men who cut a gate lock failed to shut off power to the security trailer.
Catastrophic failure would have taken down other utilities.
Only about $300,000 out of WAPA’s hundreds of million dollars it its annual capital improvement budget is devoted to security upgrades at a handful of the utility’s 328 substations, including Liberty. Keith Cloud, who heads their security operations, told The Wall Street Journal that he needs $90 million, stating, “I don’t have the authority or budget to protect my substations.”
FERC established tighter security requirements in 2014 for fewer than 350 key substations, while the vast majority of those also critical to the U.S. grid — about 55,000 smaller ones such as Metcalf and Bakersfield, which could cause destabilizing blackouts with simultaneous attacks — aren’t included.
As reported in The Wall Street Journal, many of these sites are surrounded only by chain-link fences with padlocks.
James Holler, whose security company Abidance Consulting investigated nearly 1,000 substations in 14 states, found that, “At least half had nothing but a padlock on the gate . . . No cameras. No motion sensors or alarms.”
Those with ringing alarms are often ignored. One utility never even bothered to change its substation’s locks after recovery of keys that were in a truck stolen for a joy ride.
Gerry Cauley, who heads the North American Electric Reliability Corp. that writes FERC standards, warned of the growing threat. He testified at a June FERC hearing that the prospect of a coordinated attack of “eight or ten vans going to different site and blowing things up” could cause cascading disruptions lasting weeks or months for recovery.
A 2012 National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences report concluded that substations are “the most vulnerable to terrorist attack.” Yet, unimaginable as life would be without the benefit of electricity to power critical needs we depend on, that’s very likely just what our enemies have in mind for us.