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Transmission Terrorism: As Details of Substation Attack Come to Light, Senators Call for Action

February 07, 2014 posted by Eric Christensen

Just before 1 a.m. on April 16, 2013, as-yet unidentified assailants launched an attack on the Metcalf substation in Silicon Valley. The attack lasted nearly an hour, disabling ten high-voltage transformers and three high-voltage transformer banks. Occurring just hours after the Boston Marathon bombings, the attack garnered little press coverage at the time and, as a federal investigation dragged on, details were slow to emerge. Beginning with an article published in Foreign Policy magazine in late 2013, information suggesting that the attack may have been the work of terrorists rather than vandals has started to come to light. In response to these revelations, group of four U.S. Senators today sent a letter to federal regulators calling for swift action to address the threat. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published a long article providing many details of the attack. In the article, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff noted several pieces of evidence suggesting that the attack was carefully orchestrated. For example, before the attack began, someone lifted a large cover off an underground vault and cut communications cables, knocking out communications in the area around the substation and interfering with emergency response. More than 100 empty shell cases, likely from AK-47 assault rifles, were found in the area around the substation. None had fingerprints and military experts found small piles of rocks that may have been left by an advance scout to mark the best vantage points for the attack. The number of shell cases and the fact that the vault cover probably could not have been lifted by a single person suggest that multiple individuals were involved in the attack. Many of these details were corroborated in subsequent accounts from media outlets such as National Public Radio and Bay Area newspapers. To the extent the attackers intended to cause major damage to California's electrical system, the goal was accomplished. A total of seventeen bullet-riddled high-voltage transformers lost oil, overheated, and were knocked out of service. To the extent the attackers intended to cause wide-spread power outages, however, they failed. Transmission operators at Pacific Gas & Electric, the regional utility, were able to route power around the Metcalf substation and maintain service in the area. The attack highlighted one vulnerability of the nation's electric system -- because of limited industrial capacity to produce high-voltage transformers, it took several months to replace the damaged transformers. This suggests that it could take many months for the electric system to recover from a broader attack on multiple substations, or from a natural event like intense solar activity that inflicts widespread damage on high-voltage transformers. Despite the wealth of details about the Metcalf substation attack that are now publicly available, there is little consensus among experts on either whether the attack was an act of terrorism or the extent to which such attacks represent a serious reliability threat. Former Chairman Wellinghoff blames the attack on "domestic terrorists," calling it "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred." Other officials, however, refuse to speculate on whether the attack was the product of terrorists, domestic or international. Chairman Wellinghoff also argues that physical attacks of this type represent a threat as large as, and perhaps larger than, the cybersecurity threats that have been the focus of both industry and national security experts for the past several years. On the other hand, Gerry Cauley, President of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the body charged with enforcing electric reliability standards, argues that the electric grid is more robust than Chairman Wellinghoff supposes, and that even an attack on multiple substations would result in power outages lasting only a few hours. Whatever the reality, there is little doubt that physical acts of terrorism and vandalism will be a concern of federal reliability regulators, likely resulting in additional industry compliance obligations. If you have any questions about the matters discussed in this post, please contact Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Tim Lowenberg or Eric Christensen. Together, Maj. Gen. Lowenberg and Mr. Christensen are leading the Renewable National Security Project, a joint initiative of the Gordon Thomas Honeywell law firm and Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs. Maj. Gen. Lowenberg, GTH-GA Vice President and Of Counsel to the GTH law firm, is a 44-year veteran of the Air Force, with extensive experience in anti-terrorism and cybersecurity. For example, before his retirement, Gen. Lowenberg led the Washington National Guard in developing leading-edge cybersecurity capabilities. Mr. Christensen is Chairman of GTH's Energy, Telecommunications, and Utilities practice group, and has more than twenty-five years of experience in the energy industry, and has been deeply involved in electric reliability matters since the late 1990s.