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After North Carolina Substation Attack, Will Physical Security be Updated?

Earlier this week, two substations were attacked in Moore County, North Carolina, resulting in a days-long blackout for almost 40,000 customers. Though this event is considered a small outage by North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) standards, it was heavily publicized and has revealed vulnerabilities that are not addressed in NERC Reliability Standards.


Physical security risk factors, including ease of access to information and lack of physical security standards for all grid infrastructure, must be addressed to prevent similar attacks in the future. Throughout the past decade, the United States has seen plenty of acts of sabotage that could have severely damaged the electric power grid, had that been the target.


Because there is no knowing when the grid will be the target, measures must be taken at the state level to implement improved physical security standards. Wide area blackouts caused by physical security threats can be minimized once proper security measures are in place.


Let’s examine the risk factors, past events, and actions that can be implemented to prevent this event from happening again, potentially at a larger scale.


Physical Security Risk Factors


There are many risk factors to physical security that could be addressed through updated security standards. Let’s take a closer look at three risk factors:

  1. Easily accessible information on the internet.

  2. NERC Reliability Standards that only address some high voltage substations.

  3. Lack of standards for neighborhood substations.


1. Easily Accessible Information on the Internet


There are multiple methods of finding pertinent information, which potential saboteurs could use to plan severe damage to critical power system infrastructure. The Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data (HIFLD) is a database that shows the location and salient details of every substation in the United States in an open access format.


Google Maps provides satellite views of every substation. Additionally, a potential saboteur need only google “large power transformer” to learn everything they want to know about large power transformers in less than a day.


2. NERC Reliability Standards Only Address High Voltage Substations


Electric utilities are mandated to comply with requirements listed in NERC Reliability Standards for facilities operated at 100 KV and higher. NERC developed 14 Critical Infrastructure Protection Reliability Standards to address power grid security measures.


Of these 14 standards, only Reliability Standard CIP-014 addresses physical security of transmission lines, transmission substations, and associated primary control centers. The thirteen other reliability standards are focused on cyber security. Additionally, NERC CIP Reliability Standards only apply to substations where failures can result in wide area blackouts affecting 250,000 or more customers.


NERC has not required the implementation of best practices for physical security as described in Department of Defense Facilities Planning Manuals and Nuclear Power Plant Security and Access Control Standards. Electric utilities’ security practices should emulate the standards of DoD and nuclear power industry, as these industries are far better prepared for inevitable acts of sabotage and terrorism.


3. Lack of Standards for Neighborhood Substations


When neighborhood substations are sabotaged, as happened in Moore County, tens of thousands of customers lose electric power. Unfortunately, this is not enough to cause FERC or NERC to convene an incident team and conduct a root cause investigation.


In the case of the Moore County incident, widespread negative publicity has made the story a national issue, and NERC will likely assemble an incident team. However, typically, neighborhood substations remain outside NERC’s sphere of influence.


Sabotage, Vandalism: Routine Incidents in the U.S.


Sabotage, vandalism, and theft are routine occurrences in the United States. The incidents described below all impacted the electric power grid. However, there are plenty of additional examples of sabotage that could have severely damaged the electric power grid, had that been the target, including the 2020 Nashville communications center bombing and the 2014 Chicago air traffic control center fire.


The following three incidents should have alarmed FERC, NERC, and electric utilities, and prompted the creation of more stringent physical security standards, but unfortunately, electric utilities and their regulators are slow to act.


Incident 1: Metcalf Substation Attack


On April 16, 2013, an attack on Pacific Gas and Electric Company's Metcalf transmission substation in Coyote, California resulted in severe damage to 17 transformers and more than $15 million worth of equipment damage. Luckily, this attack had little impact on the station's electrical power supply.


After the Metcalf incident, FERC and NERC were called to task by the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee, and NERC Reliability Standard CIP-014 was quickly enhanced. However, enhancements failed to satisfy security professionals who understand power system design and operation, as discussed above.


Incident 2: Power Grid Vandalism, Disgruntled Neighbor


In 2013, Jason Woodring was convicted of multiple crimes targeting the destruction of electric power grid facilities in Arkansas. Woodring carried out several acts of sabotage, targeting high-voltage power lines and a substation over a period of months.


Woodring had done some independent reading of electrical engineering principles, though he had no formal training or education on the subject. Despite his limited knowledge of the electric power grid, he was able to cause significant damage to the grid.


Incident 3: Car Fire in Substation, DUI Driver


On October 31, 2015, a car crashed into a transformer in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Police had been pursuing the driver, who failed to negotiate a curve and crashed through the substation fence, striking a large substation transformer. The car caught fire while lodged against the transformer. The fire engulfed the transformer coolers, which burst and added fuel to the fire. As a result, more than 6,000 customers were without power for hours.


States Must Get Involved in Grid Security


All substations, including neighborhood substations, should be as secure as airport terminals. Because NERC, FERC, and electric utilities are not implementing this level of security, standards must be implemented at the state level.


State governors or other top level elected officials must be briefed on the electric power grid in their state by a professional who is not affiliated with a utility, who has designed, built, operated, maintained, and repaired high voltage substations, and who understands security. At the end of their briefing, each official should be prepared with pertinent questions to ask each utility executive in their state.


These elected officials then need to meet with utility executives to discuss physical security practices for power grid infrastructure. Utility executives will likely focus on their expertise in repair and recovery. Elected officials need to be prepared to stand up for their constituents by asking difficult questions, such as how utilities will improve their physical security practices.


Innovation Assassins Prevent Change


Electric utilities often staff innovation assassins, workers who shoot down new ideas. Because Thomas Edison didn’t see the need to protect substations with anything more than a chain link fence, innovation assassins do not see the need for barriers that resist small arms fire. Innovation assassins are always ready to explain why utilities can’t or won’t change, often claiming that change is so expensive that electric utilities will need to increase their rates.


Update Physical Security Standards Without Rate Increases


Wide area blackouts caused by physical security threats are preventable. However, at this time, it is a real possibility that a single saboteur could create a multi-state blackout on a hot day in July or August, and escape detection. Additionally, electric utility repairmen are at risk of being in harm’s way, should they enter a substation that is occupied by a saboteur.


It’s time for electric utilities to upgrade physical security standards for every substation. This must be done without increasing costs to consumers who are served by companies that have been granted franchised monopolies.


Prescient has developed continuing education courses for the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee that focus on power system security. Our staff has installed security systems in nuclear power plants. We are concerned and alarmed that electric utility executives and their regulators are unaware of, or disinterested in, the risks posed by a lack of physical security standards for all grid infrastructure.


To learn more about Prescient’s ideas for improved physical security for the electric power grid, check out our security blog collection. And contact us to keep the conversation going.

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