The weekend attack on two North Carolina substations that caused widespread outages is evidence of the broader vulnerability of the national power grid, a former top energy regulator told Spectrum News, as federal officials warn that electrical infrastructure is a known target for extremists.
Authorities have not identified a suspect or motive for Saturday’s firearm attack on Duke Energy's transformers in Moore County. 35,000 households remained without power as of Tuesday afternoon.
But similar substations around the country are “at extreme risk” in the meantime, said Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“I wasn't that surprised,” Wellinghoff said in an interview. “I haven't seen any significant amount of mitigation measures being undertaken to stop this type of an incident happening.”
Wellinghoff, who oversaw the FERC response to a still-unsolved 2013 sniper attack on a California substation, said the fixes are as simple as putting up a concrete wall in front of critical equipment, or even sandbags.
“Very inexpensive, very easy to do. You know, not rocket science,” he said.
Federal officials urged power companies to boost their physical security after the 2013 attack on the Pacific Gas & Electric substation in San Jose. The FERC even established a physical security standard at the federal level in response.
Saturday’s attack in North Carolina was intentional and targeted, local authorities have said.
North America’s power grid consists of about 55,000 substations, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
Some are more critical than others: high voltage transformers make up less than three percent of those in the U.S., but they carry 60%-70% of the nation’s electricity, according to the Congressional Research Service.
A 2014 FERC study found that outages at just nine key substations could threaten power around the country, according to a Wall Street Journal report, though it’s unclear if that is still true in 2022. FERC did not respond to Spectrum News requests for comment.
Regardless, Wellinghoff said, many substations are visibly exposed — and found with just a few taps on your smartphone.
“These substations are available on Google Maps. It's something that, you know, anybody can go take a look at,” he said.
A government report this year warned that domestic extremists have long thought of targeting the grid, according to a memo obtained by the Associated Press.
Terrorists have developed “credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020,” the Department of Homeland Security alert from January read.
Those attacks could become life-threatening when a lack of power knocks out critical home medical equipment, for example, or an area is experiencing extreme heat or cold.
President Joe Biden and the Department of Energy have put a focus on power grid resiliency, including through funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law passed one year ago.
The DOE recently announced $13 billion in grants available for projects to modernize and expand America’s power grid.
But it’s difficult for the federal government to do much immediately or directly, since private power companies control the vast majority of electrical infrastructure around the U.S.
A ransomware attack last year on the 5,500-mile long Colonial Pipeline showed that vulnerability, creating gas shortages along the east coast. The Biden administration issued warnings and cybersecurity guidance to pipeline owners and other critical companies but couldn’t force recovery.
The White House has “worked closely with the private sector to strengthen resilience against the full spectrum of potential threats,” a National Security Council spokesperson told Spectrum News on Tuesday, including by sharing “threat information with the private sector.”
Federal officials have also said they’re monitoring the FBI investigation into the North Carolina incident.
And the energy department “is working with Duke Energy and other utilities in the region to ensure they have the resources needed to restore power as quickly and safely as possible,” said deputy press secretary Jeremy Ortiz.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.