The US power grid has long faced a terrorist threat

One expert says the sheer size of the power grid can make it difficult to defend.

(Gerry Broome | AP Photo, File) High voltage power lines deliver power to rural Orange County crime on August 14, 2018 near Hillsborough, NC. The shooting serves as a reminder of why experts have stressed the need to secure the US power grid. Authorities have warned that the country’s electricity infrastructure could be vulnerable targets for domestic terrorists.

WASHINGTON (AP) • Investigators believe a shooting that damaged substations in North Carolina was a felony. What they haven’t named yet is a suspect or motive.

Whatever the reason, the shooting is a reminder of why experts have stressed the need to secure the US power grid. Authorities have warned that the country’s electricity infrastructure could be vulnerable targets for domestic terrorists.

Tens of thousands of people lost their power over the weekend after one or more people opened fire on two Duke Energy substations in Moore County, about 60 miles southwest of Raleigh. As of Monday, no one has been charged in the shooting.

Here’s a look at what’s known about the shooting and why it could have ramifications across the United States

What do we know about the shooting?

The outages in North Carolina began just after 7 p.m. Saturday when one or more people opened fire at two substations in Moore County, the county sheriff said. The outages left tens of thousands of people without power, and the equipment could take days to repair, according to Duke Energy.

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said at a news conference Sunday that authorities had not determined a motive. He said someone pulled up and “opened fire on the substation, same with the other one”. The sheriff said it appeared gates had been breached at both locations. The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines, North Carolina, reported that a wooden post supporting a gate had been broken off at one of the substations and was lying in an access road Sunday morning.

The sheriff noted that the FBI was working with state investigators to determine who was responsible. He also said “it was targeted.”

“It wasn’t an accident,” Fields said.

Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said the company has multiple layers of security at each of its facilities, but declined to give details. He said the company has plans to recover from events like the shooting and they are following those plans.

Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Ruth Clemens said the department’s cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency has offered assistance to Duke Energy in power restoration efforts.

Targets for extremist groups

Federal authorities have warned that the power grid could be a prime target for extremist groups committed to “accelerationism,” a fringe philosophy that promotes mass violence to fuel societal breakdown.

In January, a US Department of Homeland Security report warned that domestic extremists have been developing “credible, specific plans” for attacks on power infrastructure since at least 2020. The DHS report warns that extremists “with a range of ideologies are likely to continue plotting and promoting physical attacks on electrical infrastructure.”

The department wrote that without internal help, attackers were unlikely to cause widespread multi-state failures. However, the report warned that an attack could still cause damage and cause injuries.

Members of white racist and anti-government groups have been linked to plots to attack the power grid. In February, three men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to attack US energy facilities. Authorities said they were driven by white racist ideologies to “sow chaos and division among Americans.”

Other attacks

Fears of an attack on the country’s power infrastructure are nothing new. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has urged grid operators to increase security after an unresolved sniper attack on a California substation in April 2013.

The attack on the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation in a remote area near San Jose, California caused power outages and prompted calls to millions to save energy.

The attack involved cutting fiber optic phone lines and firing shots into the PG&E substation. The FBI said at the time it found no evidence that it was an act of terrorism.

Former US Senator Mary Landrieu, who chaired the Senate Energy Committee in 2014, said at the time it was fortunate the attack didn’t cause a power outage in Silicon Valley “the horror of which can only be imagined.”

After this attack, FERC and other agencies recommended that utilities take specific measures to protect vulnerable substations, such as: B. adding walls, sensors or cameras. Still, many remain exposed in rural US areas. And experts have warned for years that shutting down some U.S. substations could result in rolling blackouts and leave millions without power.

A Utah man was arrested in 2016 and later sentenced to federal prison after shooting a rifle at the cooling fins of a substation, rupturing the radiator tubes and causing the substation to overheat and fail. According to court documents, the man had planned to attack other substations in a bid to disrupt power to much of the western United States.

What is the challenge of grid protection?

The vastness of America’s power infrastructure makes it difficult to defend. Power plants and substations like those being targeted in North Carolina are scattered in every corner of the country, connected by transmission lines that carry electricity through farmlands, forests and swamps.

“The net is huge,” said Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and professor of homeland security at the University of Southern California.

Securing the targets also presents an increasing challenge because attackers don’t always have to get as close as they do in North Carolina to do damage, Southers said. With the right rifle, skill, and line of sight, a sniper could shoot at ranges of up to 1,500 meters (about 4,900 feet).

Protecting substations from a long-range gunshot is “extremely challenging, if not impossible,” he said.

Southers said all of these challenges mean protecting power infrastructure can boil down to more response and backup systems than defense. “Those are the things you use to protect yourself, knowing that you may not be able to stop the gunshot.”

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Kunzelman reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2022/12/06/explainer-us-power-grid-has-long/ The US power grid has long faced a terrorist threat

Justin Scacco

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