An important new survey by The Wall Street Journal finds tens of thousands of critical links in the national electric grid remain vulnerable to sabotage.
This alarming reality persists despite pressure on utility owners from the federal government to protect electric power substations from physical attack.
These distribution nodes typically belong to utility companies that have not devoted sufficient resources to protecting them from attack. That will likely change through a combination of aroused public opinion and government regulatory pressure, and the sooner the better.
Unfortunately, though, consumers will almost certainly pay that costly tab.
Until recently the risk of a concerted physical attack on the nation’s distribution system for electric power had seemed so remote that power substations typically were protected only from random trespassers, while concern about hostile attacks focused on the still worrisome vulnerability of the grid to computer hacking.
But at a little after 1 a.m. on April 16, 2013, a team of trained marksmen systematically destroyed 17 transformers at a Metcalf, California, substation in less than 20 minutes of concentrated high-powered rifle fire, then melted away, never to be caught.
A blackout of Silicon Valley was averted, but it was a close call.
This mysterious event prompted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to require upgraded physical security for substations of a size whose loss could disable parts of the national electric grid.
The number of such substations is small. The Journal quotes experts who say they might number 350 out of a total of around 55,000 substations.
But it turns out that a number of smaller substations have been subject to physical attack in the past three years, and it is a reasonable concern that a systematic attack on a small cluster of such substations could have the same disabling effect as taking out a larger unit of the power grid.
Some of the attacks were evidently mounted by copper thieves. But the Journal found nine break-ins at substations between 2014 and 2016 “where theft wasn’t the apparent motive.”
In one case cited by the Journal, intruders made multiple attacks on a federally owned power substation near Phoenix, Arizona, with the apparent motive of gaining access to the unit’s computers.
They cut fiber-optic cables providing communication to the substations cameras and alarms, sliced through the perimeter fence and left the steel door to the control building “peeled back like a sardine can,” according to the head of security for the parent utility. The computer cabinets were pried open. Recently installed security cameras failed to record the break-in.
In April a federal audit of security at the parent utility, the federally owned Western Area Power Administration, found broken or obsolete security equipment, lax control over keys and failure to install intrusion detection devices.
The security manager for WAPA told the Journal he needs $90 million to bring the utility’s 328 substations up to new security standards but has received only $300,000.
The Journal has highlighted a serious problem that demands the urgent attention of Congress as well as federal and state utility regulators.
Our nation’s economy — and people — depend upon a steady source of electricity. And the longer our national power grid remains vulnerable, the bigger the threat to it grows.