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Power System Security Has Never Been More Important

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Threats to critical infrastructure occur within the U.S. multiple times a year, across all industries. Essential infrastructure to the electric power grid, cellular communication centers, air traffic control centers, and other industries have been targeted by vandals, saboteurs, and domestic terrorists. Making things worse, it is nearly impossible to predict when and where an event like this will occur.

A serious issue within the electric power grid is the lack of security surrounding critical infrastructure. NERC standards for critical infrastructure protection are not sufficient to prevent all physical attacks. Substations are usually protected by limited, low-tech security, such as outdated closed-circuit television cameras and chain link fences. Most substation components are out in the open. Transmission and distribution lines span great distances unprotected.

By studying some of the threats and attacks on other industries, as well as attacks on substations and power lines, the electric utility industry can prepare for potential threats that have not yet occurred within the industry. This post explores incidents of vandalism and sabotage that have already occurred to outline potential dangers to the electric power grid.

Later in this series on power system security, we’ll discuss Prescient’s method of assessing critical infrastructure security, as well as strategic enhancements to bolster physical security.

Communications Center Bombing

On December 25, 2020, at 6:30 a.m. in Nashville, an RV filled with explosives detonated outside an AT&T telecommunications system central office. The bombing led to communication outages throughout Tennessee and across several other states in the southeast. Cell service, internet, and emergency communication centers, which connect and transfer 911 calls, were disconnected for several days.

The crippling damage that this incident incurred on AT&T’s telecommunications system could easily debilitate the electric power grid.

Air Traffic Control Center Fire

On September 26, 2014, a disgruntled employee entered the Chicago Center - an extremely busy air traffic control center - with the intention of destroying air traffic communication from that center. The employee, Brian Howard, was convicted of intentionally causing damage to the Chicago Center, using fire and other means. Howard had an inside understanding of the control center; he targeted specific wires to cut power to both the primary and backup telecommunication systems. He also started a gasoline fire inside the facility.

This targeted sabotage resulted in loss of communication with 135 jets as they traveled at altitude. Several thousand more flights were cancelled or delayed through O’Hare International Airport and Midway Airport. The damage to vital electronic equipment took days to repair. The damage incurred in this incident is comparable to that which could occur in a substation control house, should a saboteur or terrorist decide to act.

Attack on PG&E’s Metcalf Transmission Substation

On the morning of April 16, 2013, a team of gunmen armed with sniper rifles opened fire on Pacific Gas and Electric Company's Metcalf Transmission Substation, severely damaging 17 transformers. Prior to the attack, a nearby series of fiber-optic telecommunications cables were cut.

It is likely that the shooters created a plan before opening fire on the substation, which included limiting communication in the surrounding area. The saboteurs took full advantage of the vulnerable, open-air transformers that were protected by only a chain link fence and some low-tech cameras.

Power Grid Vandalism

On August 21, 2013, Jason Woodring strung a cable through a partially dismantled high voltage transmission tower and across train tracks just outside of Cabot, AR. His intent was for a moving train to pull down a tower that supported a transmission line. Woodring admitted to spending months taking apart the 100-foot tower piece by piece to prepare it to fall. The attack was determined to be deliberately planned at the start of a heat wave, when power would be in high demand, with the intention of causing a wide area blackout.

Woodring’s vandalism against the electric power grid did not end there. On September 29, 2013, Woodring broke into an extra high voltage switching station using bolt cutters to cut through the fence. He quickly dispersed a gallon of ethanol and motor oil on the control house, lit the station on fire, and left the scene of the crime.

Then on October 5, Woodring used a chain saw, ax, and eventually a stolen tree-trimming vehicle to saw, chop, and pull down a wooden power pole. Power was knocked out for 10,000 people in the surrounding area. It wasn’t until several days later that Woodring was arrested and his months-long vandalism spree on the electric power grid came to a halt.

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

Car Fire in Substation

On the evening of October 31, 2015, a car crashed into a transformer in Allentown. 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.

Takeaways for the Electric Utility Industry

Suppose an incident like the Nashville bombing occurred outside an open air substation. What sort of damage would occur? The substation components would be damaged in a fire resulting from the explosion. The surrounding area would lose power for several hours to days. If the substation were in a populated area, an attack would result not only in the loss of power, but also structural damage and, in the worst case, casualties.

Even the work of a sole vandal like Jason Woodring can bring the power grid to a grinding halt. If a coordinated effort were made by a group of terrorists, what would the fallout be?

By learning from these incidents across all industries, the electric utility industry can make enhancements to its critical infrastructure protection to ensure that all vital infrastructure is secure. With enhanced security design practices, potential threats can be deterred and delayed so that they do not become major incidents.

Stay tuned for the next part in our series on power system security, in which we will explore Prescient’s approach to security assessments. If you’d like to dive further into the topic of infrastructure security, contact us; we’d love to talk to you.

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