Recent Attacks on Substations and Emergency Preparedness

January 31, 2023

Over the past several weeks multiple disruptive attacks on critical electrical infrastructure such as the substations connected to the US power grid have reemerged in headlines. On November 30, 2022 the Department of Homeland Security described the vulnerable infrastructure as possible targets for groups or individuals seeking to exploit soft targets, cause significant financial losses, or disrupt society. A federal study in 2013  found that disabling only nine of the 55,000 substations across the US would disable power to the entire country. This illustrates the vulnerability of the electrical grid, the critical need for security around substations, and the importance of Americans being prepared for disruptions or outages. According to grid security watchdog Grid Security Now, roughly 38% of electric disturbance events in the US are due to physical attacks, 2% are due to cyber attacks, and 53% are due to weather events. Recently, attacks in Moore County, North Carolina left tens of thousands without power for several days. Six additional attacks took place in the Pacific Northwest in October and November. The origin of all these attacks was an incident in 2013 in Coyote, California in which an unknown number of individuals targeted a substation with gunfire, causing over 15 million dollars in damages. All attacks since this incident have essentially been emulations by perpetrators who learned how easy it is to hit these types of infrastructure targets. The Department of Energy has identified 530 incidents of attack, sabotage, or vandalism to substations since 2013, 70 of which occurred in 2022 alone. These cases emphasize the significance of this issue and the urgent need for comprehensive security around substations and for individual emergency preparedness.

Physical Security to Protect the Grid

Power utility companies do not currently have sufficient physical security in place to meet today's threat landscape. What many people think of as a single power grid is actually a network of roughly 3,000 federal, state, and private entities which all own and operate small pieces of our massive power grid. Due to the large number of sites, posting guards at every substation may be both expensive and impractical, but there a number of steps utility companies may consider to improve overall security:

  • Construct Barriers - Chain link fencing is not enough to protect substations, which may be easily overcome by hostile actors firing weapons through or above them. Building taller, brick or concrete, walls around substations would help harden targets and deter hostile actors.
  • Install Security Cameras - To this day some substations don't have basic security camera systems. This makes both preventative monitoring and post-mortem investigations difficult, which is why many crimes targeting substations go unsolved. Installing basic camera systems would go a long way to preventing attacks and catching perpetrators when an attack occurs.  
  • Install Motion Sensors - Installing sensors in the areas surrounding substations can help give authorities advance warning when an attack occurs. As cameras are not currently commonplace, the only way utility companies know an attack has occurred is when a substation goes offline or someone nearby calls the authorities. Without proper intrusion detection mechanisms, criminals have ample time to conduct attacks and leave without encountering any resistance.

Please note these measures are not comprehensive. A robust security program utilizes layers of security and numerous protections, such as access control, intrusion detection, video surveillance, and policies and procedures.

Preparing for Potential Electric Grid Disruptions

The lack of security at these critical infrastructure sites not only leaves the population vulnerable to possible inconveniences, but can also lead to fatalities, particularly during the highs of summer heat or below freezing temperatures of winter. For example, while not the result of a physical attack, the Texas blackout of 2021, during three consecutive winter storms, left millions without power and killed 246 people, according to official Texas state estimates. Even with improved security to the power grid, the threat of power outages is still prevalent, particularly in regions that experience more severe weather events. However, families and businesses can take several steps to better prepare for a loss in power. Things like having an emergency supply of water in your home or workplace, a fully packed go-bag, or diesel generator to power essential appliances like a refrigerator or space heater in the winter can help you get through power disruptions.

Isaac Williams & Andrew Villamarette

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