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The North Carolina power grid attack exposes a troubling reality

With more than 40,000 customers in the dark, experts say the electrical grid has some glaring vulnerabilities.

The attacks, which involved gunfire and as of yet have no clear motive or suspects, highlight the physical vulnerability of the United States’ vast power grid in a world increasingly concerned by the risk of cyber intrusion. More than 55,000 power substations help keep electricity flowing across the country. Physical attacks on these and other power grid infrastructure are more common than one might think — and increasing in frequency.

Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said the susceptibility of the nation’s electric infrastructure is “a problem that should take a relatively little amount of money and time to rectify, and one that can be taken care of with a few measures that would obstruct these pieces of infrastructure — primarily transformers — from view and from harm from projectiles.”

Yet despite continued physical attacks on the grid, he said, simple measures to protect the nation’s most vulnerable electric infrastructure have not been fully implemented in many areas.

Gaps in the physical security of the nation’s power grid attracted national attention in 2013, when multiple people shot .30 caliber rounds at high-voltage transformer radiators at the Metcalf substation south of San Jose, California. That caused the equipment to leak and then fail. Although the incident prompted attention from Congress to the larger issue of grid security, the perpetrators were never caught. And the nation’s power apparatus is still at risk.

“Something as simple as sandbags would be effective,” Wellinghoff told Grid. “It’s not rocket science here that we’re talking about to be able to protect these things. And it’s not billions of dollars to protect these things either. It’s several millions.”

Persistent vulnerabilities

Duke Energy, which owns the North Carolina substations that were attacked, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

The decades-old report noted that many important pieces of infrastructure were highly visible and protected by nothing more than a chain-link fence. “In some cases,” the report states, “an attack can be carried out without entering the facility.”

The attacks in North Carolina illustrate how the risks and gaps in security have continued to the present day.

“The physical vulnerability of the U.S. power system is a problem that has existed for decades,” Morgan said. “We are in a somewhat better situation these days than we were 20 years ago, but the system is still highly vulnerable.”

Extremist threats

Major attacks against such infrastructure have been relatively rare in recent years — but not unheard of.

“Since Metcalf, everybody knew the potential was out there,” said Wellinghoff, who headed FERC at the time. “To allow this to happen is unconscionable.”

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