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California Electric Grid Attack Was “Terrorism”

California Electric Grid Attack Was “Terrorism”

Will a terrorist with a rifle spark a massive blackout?

While all eyes are on Sochi and the undercurrent of concern about potential terrorism in Russia, there has been a troubling upgrade of an California incident initially deemed vandalism.

A 2013 attack on an electric substation near San Jose that nearly knocked out Silicon Valley’s power supply was initially downplayed as vandalism by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the facility’s owner. Gunfire from semiautomatic weapons did extensive damage to 17 transformers that sent grid operators scrambling to avoid a blackout.

But this week, a former top power regulator offered a far more ominous interpretation: The attack was terrorism, he said, and if circumstances had been just a little different, it could have been disastrous.

Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when the shooting took place, said that attack was clearly executed by well-trained individuals seeking to do significant damage to the area, and he fears it was a test run for an even larger assault.

“It would not be that hard to bring down the entire region west of the Rockies if you, in fact, had a coordinated attack like this against a number of substations,” Wellinghoff said Thursday. “This [shooting] event shows there are people out there capable of such an attack.”

Wellinghoff’s warning about the incident at PG&E’s Metcalf substation was reported this week by the Wall Street Journal, expanding on a December report by Foreign Policy magazine.

FBI officials said they are taking the shooting very seriously.

Given the FBI’s handling of the Internal Revenue Service’s blocking Tea Party tax exemption requests, I am not consoled.

Foreign Policy has a detailed description of the incident entitled ‘Military-Style’ Raid on California Power Station Spooks US. The soon-to-be former Congressman Henry Waxman shared his thoughts about the incident during a recent hearing:

“It is clear that the electric grid is not adequately protected from physical or cyber attacks,” Waxman said. He called the shooting at the the San Jose facility “an unprecedented and sophisticated attack on an electric grid substation with military-style weapons. Communications were disrupted. The attack inflicted substantial damage. It took weeks to replace the damaged parts. Under slightly different conditions, there could have been serious power outages or worse.”

So while our government spent its time spying on our video game habits, it looks like a group of terrorists nearly knocked out the power that makes them possible for a large, populous region of the country. Perhaps we need rethink where our concerns about terror should be?

(Featured image from Quest).


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NC Mountain Girl | February 10, 2014 at 11:23 am

I am surprised it hasn’t happened more often. From time to time I hear talk near me about fixing some uppity seasonal resident who steps on too many local sensibilities by “accidentally” putting a couple of rounds into their transformer during deer season. It’s mostly just talk but the vulnerability of the power grid to such damage is widely known.

    Phillep Harding in reply to NC Mountain Girl. | February 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    A better trick is to collect bacon drippings then freeze them. Toss the block on the roof.

    Or, so I’ve heard speculated.

    Of course, we have grizzlies around here, but black bear should be equally distructive.

9thDistrictNeighbor | February 10, 2014 at 11:23 am

The answer to terrorist attacks on the power grid is obviously more gun control.

The power grid overall has some resilience built in. Attacking a nearby transformer will be effective at impacting a few local residences in many cases, but to take large sections of the grid down requires a much larger strategy. And it also requires a reasonably detailed knowledge of the grid layout in a region. However, that isn’t exactly secret in most cases.

The problem with securing the grid and the reason why it seems to be slow in changing, has a lot to due with the interaction of utilities, private parties, and government. Even today, there are still regulatory hurdles preventing some security investments to be returned through rate payers or even through taxation. As is all too common, regulators have too much influence over things they didn’t intend to affect.

Back in ’80’s, I used to work at United Technologies Co/ Chemical Systems Division which is at the top of Metcalf road. Travel to that area was on the old Monterey Highway – work on the valley freeway / US 101 wasn’t completed yet. You’d think that there would be on/off ramps from the freeway to Metcalf what with UTC/CSD being such a large employer for the area, but it was said the pols were unhappy with the company who is in the chemical explosive / propellant business and made solid rocket motors for my employer who sent me there to QA the place. Apparently there were always hassles getting clearance to move the large rocket motors on public roadways, or complaints from south bay dwellers whenever UTC/CSD conducted live-fire tests.

If there were an attack at the Metcalf substation (which wasn’t there in ’84 that I recall), emergency responders would be impeded by lack of direct freeway access. And there is the possibility the grid attack had to do with testing that response.

I’d be much more concerned with UTC/CSD as a terror target than the electrical grid. Though UTC/CSD is tucked well into the hills above Metcalf/Coyote area, there were, in ’84-’85 at least, large outbuildings where solid rocket motors were stored – boosters – and toxic explosive chemicals, waste lagoons, etc. That place is a potential terrorist’s wet dream.

But that was 30 years ago and might not apply now. With what O has done to the space program, and environmentalists do to businesses like that, it might be a ghost town for al I know. The last time I was back there was about ’96 and the area was unrecognizable to me; what the freeway did to all the cool old mom and pop shops and wineries along Monterey … live only in my memories.

What something like this does make me wonder – are the people who are supposed to protect us really that slow, or is it just SOP to feed disinformation to the public to quell fear and save face for incompetent officials?

    casualobserver in reply to MrE. | February 10, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    The apparent slowness to improve the grid security is owned by all parties, but perhaps a significant piece is in the hands of the regulators. Utilities and private parties are not free to make any upgrades they choose, especially if they expect to cover costs at a bare minimum. And that’s why you find a number of industry organizations, panels, and a growing number of DC based parties working to get regulations modified. Of course, those who believe in an ever expanding regulatory framework for energy will say that government is “working with industry to find the solutions.” As if government is required to “find” solutions….

      Phillep Harding in reply to casualobserver. | February 10, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      From experience, it only takes one fanatic in the wrong place to mess things up for years, even after the fanatic has left the original position. Nobody is going to rescind whatever limitation the fanatic put into place because nobody knows the whole story.

These types of events have been reported on below-the-radar type blogs for the past few years. Guess they’re not such conspiracy-theorists afterall.

Given this is California, I’d think greenie radicals before jihadist terrorists (domestic vs foreign terrorists).

    joeyjmiller in reply to Henry Hawkins. | February 12, 2014 at 7:55 am

    The shooters were ~50 yards outside the fence according to one report from CNN (Which also insisted on calling them “snipers” with “military style” “assault rifles” so take it with a grain of salt), I doubt greenies or jihadis would have been able to aim so well.

BannedbytheGuardian | February 10, 2014 at 3:35 pm

In the recent past 5 years there has ben a big jump in foreign ‘engineering students ‘ in the US. Most western countries have engineering schools so it is not them.

Can you guess?

BannedbytheGuardian | February 10, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Hint – 7 foreign students caught in the New Jersey reservoir grounds at midnight . Strangely enough all were ‘engineers ‘ in training . Pilot school is out .

I live just two miles north of this substation. What I have found disturbing – and my friends in the neighborhood agree with me on this – we heard nothing about this at the time it occurred last April. That bothers me. All the articles I’ve read quoted the FBI as stating this isn’t considered terrorist activity but if you listen to how and what was done it’s clear this was well planned. First the underground fiber-optic cables were cut. Then the sniper targeted the oil-filled cooling systems of the large transformers, allowing them to bleed dry and overheat, thus failing. Most people would just aim for the transformer itself, causing an explosion and fire. That would’ve brought in the calvary! As it was the sniper had time to take out 17 transformers before police arrived. During the investigation small piles of stones were found along the road fronting the substation, as though to mark targets. I personally don’t think it’s eco-terrorists – that’s not something we’ve heard anything about around here and plus, no one’s claimed responsibility. Usually they do – it brings publicity. However we do have a very high number of immigrants from all over the globe – the tech industry brings them in. It would be so easy for someone with hostile intent to blend in.
Another bit of info you won’t read in any article – just a little way up on Metcalf Road on the other side of the freeway (but before the hills) is an outdoor firing range. It’s really close to the substation – a mile away maybe? You can see it on Google maps. When the news first broke locals assumed it was just someone from the range being a little target-happy. But pulling up a manhole cover (which takes two people to lift) and going underground to cut phone cables before shooting kind of eliminates an impulsive prank. Probably completely unrelated, but it is interesting, no?
A side note – I’ve lived here so long I remember UTC testing the rocket fuel that MrE mentioned. Way cool! Very loud. I always thought it was neat to see the huge flame shooting up behind the ridge line. I think they’re closed – there’s nothing there now. Even the buildings are gone. Don’t think they’d be a target anymore.

The PBS report tonight had comments about the serious risk to the power grid from terrorism. Jon Wellinghof formerly at FERC made good points about the consequences of sub station outages. A second speaker said that the grid is robust and saves itself. Yes from a circuit trip, no from oil filled transformers bombed and on fire!

Having studied this issue, I see very serious risk from terror inflicted by someone who knows the power flow and selects large interconnection transmission sub stations that have transformers and circiut breakers that would take months to build from scratch and install. This terror approach would aim at a high populated area and cause a power outage that would last for months and create a true dissaster since electricity supports our whole infrastructure. Remember when the northest went out for a day.

We need the analysis and the protection of these hundreds of critical 500Kv and 230Kv transmission interconnections.