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Improving Physical Security at Neighborhood Substations

Prescient’s recent webinar on Effective Physical Security for Electric Substations highlighted the ways in which today’s physical security at transmission substations is insufficient. Even physical security requirements found in NERC Reliability Standard CIP 014 do not provide a level of physical security that is on par with standards for similarly vital and vulnerable infrastructure, like that of the nuclear power industry.


Of the 75,000 substations in the United States, less than 1,000 are required to harden their physical security to meet CIP 014 standards. Only these 1,000 substations could potentially withstand severe damage caused by saboteurs, misguided activists, and domestic terrorists. Few are likely to withstand sabotage by a disgruntled employee with insider knowledge.


Nearly 70,000 substations in the US are neighborhood substations, which operate below 100 KV and are exempt from NERC oversight. This means that physical security requirements are created at the discretion of the electric utility that owns each substation. Requirements are not consistent across the US and are not sufficient to withstand acts of sabotage.


This article reviews current physical security standards for neighborhood substations compared to enhanced physical security measures that would significantly improve grid resilience to sabotage. Let’s dive in.


Moore County, A Neighborhood Substation Attack


The attack on two neighborhood substations in Moore County, North Carolina, in December of 2022, had the earmarks of a disgruntled employee. Investigators discovered that the attacker(s) knew what they were doing when they damaged the two substations with gunfire.

This attack left 40,000 people without power for days and caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage. And yet, physical security for electric substations, including neighborhood substations like the ones attacked, has not been improved since. The event seems all but forgotten as the news cycle moved on. NERC, FERC, and electric utilities have done nothing to improve their physical security requirements for any substations.


Because physical security requirements have not been updated, another attack could happen at any time. In February 2023, two suspected white supremacists were arrested in plot to attack five substations in Baltimore, Maryland. Fortunately, these rogue individuals broadcast their plans on social media, and law enforcement was able to apprehend them before they attacked the substations.


Current Physical Security Leaves Communities Vulnerable


The perimeter of most neighborhood substations is an eight-foot chain link fence that is topped with razor wire. Inside the substation, structures and transformers reach 30, 40 and 50 feet into the air, with bushings reaching 20 to 30 feet above grade. These components are easily visible outside the substation, through and over the fence.


Lights viewed as orbs, seen through a chain link fence at night.

A chain link fence topped with razor wire is often the only physical barrier surrounding a neighborhood substation.


Though neighborhood substations may seem less important to secure physically, they play a vital role in providing electric energy to critical infrastructure within communities: hospitals, police stations, even grocery stores can be considered essential. When a saboteur, especially a disgruntled employee, disables a neighborhood substation at a key location, large swaths of the surrounding community could be without power for days.


Mimic Security at Other Neighborhood Establishments


From grocery stores to banks, most neighborhood establishments have some level of physical security. Every grocery store has multiple surveillance cameras in its parking lot, entry ways, and throughout the store. Banks have significant investments in physical security, such as metal detectors, security cameras, bullet proof vaults, and security guards onsite.


Electric utilities should, at the very least, mimic the physical security level of grocery stores by implementing visual surveillance at all their neighborhood substations (and all substations they oversee, including those regulated by NERC). Additional security measures should be implemented based on effectiveness and cost. Prescient’s physical security risk assessment helps utilities determine their most vulnerable components, and the most cost-effective methods of securing these.


Subsequent measures that should be implemented include installing single person alarms so that security is dispatched whenever a single individual enters a substation; placing bollards along fences to protect them from being breached by an SUV; and placing visibility barriers around components that are easily damaged by small arms fire.


Visibility barriers could have prevented the Moore County attack. Incidents in other industries, including sabotage by a disgruntled employee or damage from an explosive-filled truck, could also be prevented by these subsequent physical security measures.


Improve Grid Resilience with Improved Physical Security


Electric utilities can improve grid resilience and customer trust by improving the physical security measures at neighborhood substations. Even a few simple, inexpensive improvements to physical security would discourage saboteurs, activists, or disgruntled employees from targeting the electric energy grid.


To help electric utilities determine the actions that will best improve physical security, Prescient offers a physical security analysis service, which determines substation vulnerabilities and offers insight into cost-effective measures to improve physical security at substations. Learn more about our approach to physical security, the SHIELDR method, and recommended enhancements, by watching a recording of our webinar.


To request a copy of our whitepaper or schedule a free consultation, contact us today.

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