States look to secure grid after substation attack

Policymakers in several states are seeking to strengthen the security of the electric grid after a series of attacks at substations in recent months exposed vulnerabilities and left thousands without power.

At least four states reported deliberate attacks on transmission facilities last year. The worst outage occurred in early December when more than 45,000 utility customers in Moore County, North Carolina, were without power after two substations were shot at.

Republican state Rep. Ben Moss, who is proposing legislation to bolster security, told The Associated Press that the December attacks turned his district into a “ghost town.” He added, “When the power goes out, you don’t have heat, you don’t have food, you don’t have access to fuel or some medicines, people are not safe.”

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worker power station

CARTHAGE, USA – DECEMBER 5: A view of the substation after tens of thousands of people lost power in Moore County following the Duke Electric attack on two substations on December 5, 2022 in Carthage, North Carolina, USA In progress (Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images/Getty Images)

A draft version of the bill obtained by The Associated Press would require utilities to provide 24-hour security at substations, and security improvements will vary by location, as some facilities are gated and have video surveillance while others are relatively exposed . Moss sees his bill as a “conversation starter” that he hopes will help lawmakers, utilities and safety experts identify cost-effective defenses that won’t lead to higher prices for consumers.

Last week, North Carolina authorities reported a shooting at a substation in Randolph County. No power outages were reported, and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is reportedly investigating the incident. No arrests were made in the Moore County or Randolph County substation attacks.

Last year, there were at least a dozen incidents involving vandalism at substations in South Carolina, including one in which the FBI responded days after a shooting in Moore County, North Carolina, where a shooting was reported but power remained exist.

North Carolina power outage: Federal memo flags Washington, Oregon substation hit similar to Moore County attack

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On Monday, December 12, a gate at 6910 NC Hwy 211 in West North Carolina blocked access to a West End substation. On January 5, 2022, a severe attack on critical infrastructure caused power outages in many locations near Southern Pines, North Carolina (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker/AP Photo)

Utilities in South Carolina are calling on lawmakers to tighten penalties for damaging electrical infrastructure, with a state Senate bill that would impose sliding scales based on damage done to facilities. Under the proposal, damages of more than $25,000 could land perpetrators up to 20 years in prison — double the current maximum sentence of 10 years. If someone dies or suffers damage to health due to a blackout after the attack, they will be sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Attacks on power facilities are also common in the Pacific Northwest. Utilities in Oregon and Washington state reported 15 physical attacks on electric facilities in 2022, 10 of which occurred in the last two months of the year. A series of attacks on four substations in the Puget Sound area on Christmas Day left 15,000 utility customers without power.

North Carolina power grid attack exposes vulnerabilities, prompts review of other recent attacks

nc power outage maintenance

Workers work at the West End Substation at 6910 NC Hwy 211 in West North Carolina on Monday, Dec. 12. On January 5, 2022, a severe attack on critical infrastructure caused power outages in many locations near Southern Pines, North Carolina (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker/AP Photo)

Two Washington state men are facing charges of conspiracy to sabotage energy facilities after they struck four substations dozens of miles apart on Dec. 25, 2022 and knocked out power to 15,000 customers in the Puget Sound area. Prosecutors said the motive was to break into an area business during a power outage.

Washington State’s Office of Energy is working on an overhaul under the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, looking to implement physical and cybersecurity updates to the state’s electric infrastructure.

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A substation in Clackamas County, Oregon, was deliberately attacked on Thanksgiving morning. No arrests have been made. The Oregon Public Utilities Commission is working with the utilities it regulates to increase vigilance and explore facility safety improvements.

Federal energy regulators are also looking to improve grid security. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees the nation’s large power system, is expected to submit a report by early April with recommendations for possible safety improvements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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