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In the Crosshairs

Protecting substations and transformers after the PG&E Metcalf attack.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2014
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Utilities and policymakers have focused increasing attention over the past decade on electric grid cybersecurity. By comparison, less attention has been paid to initiatives designed to prevent physical attacks on electric facilities. However, a 2012 report by the National Research Council, titled "Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System," found that high-voltage transformers "are the single most vulnerable component of the transmission and distribution system."

That observation was confirmed by reports of a physical attack on the PG&E Metcalf transmission substation in San Jose, Calif., on April 16, 2013. The attack wasn't widely publicized outside of the electric utility industry until The Wall Street Journal reported it in early February 2014.

FBI investigators in San Jose found evidence of a carefully planned attack. Before the substation was attacked, the culprits reportedly snipped AT&T fiber optic lines to knock out phone service, including the 911 emergency system. Then, multiple gunmen using assault rifles fired between 100 and 150 rounds into the substation equipment, disabling 17 of the 20 large transformers. Because the substation was protected only by a chain link fence, the snipers had clear shots at the cooling fins, thus draining oil from the transformers.

Because PG&E was able to re-route power, electric service continued uninterrupted. However, the substation sustained between $15 and $16 million in damage and was disabled for almost four weeks.

The perpetrators seemed to know what they were doing. Besides disabling phone service, they made sure that the shell casings they left were devoid of fingerprints. No arrests have been made to date. The FBI is treating the incident as a case of vandalism rather than terrorism, according to spokesperson Peter Lee in a CNN interview in February 2014. But no matter what the motivation, the Metcalf substation attack prompted the industry to ask tough questions about the vulnerability of our vital utility infrastructure.

Barely Protected

Naturally, the incident has led to a significant number of responses, many calling for more comprehensive and stringent initiatives for substation physical security. Probably the most outspoken proponent of such actions is Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and now a partner with the San Francisco law firm of Stoel Rives LLP. In a February media report, Wellinghoff referred to the Metcalf incident as "the most significant incident of modern terrorism involving the U.S. power grid that has ever occurred." He also expressed concern that it might have been a test for a larger strike, possibly terrorism, and began calling for federal involvement to ensure better security around electrical substations, which he describes as "barely protected with a chain link fence and cameras. And even those cameras don't capture details outside the fence, because they are more focused inside it."

M. Granger Morgan, University and Lord Chair Professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Penn.), who led the National Research Council study, expresses similar concerns. "Utility substations have long been very

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