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Terrorists Are Eyeing These Vulnerable, Unprotected Parts Of The Power Grid — And There’s 10,000 Of Them

Terrorists Are Eyeing These Vulnerable, Unprotected Parts Of The Power Grid -- And There's 10,000 Of Them

How vulnerable is America’s power grid? The Wall Street Journal recently did an in-depth study to find out the answer to that question, and the results are unsettling.

“Despite federal orders to secure the power grid, tens of thousands of substations are still vulnerable to saboteurs,” writes WSJ reporter Rebecca Smith in the July 14, 2016 edition. “The U.S. electric system is in danger of widespread blackouts lasting days, weeks or longer through the destruction of sensitive, hard-to-replace equipment. Yet records are so spotty that no government agency can offer an accurate tally of substation attacks, whether for vandalism, theft or more nefarious purposes.”

Smith reviewed dozens of reports of break-ins at power stations, including one last year at an electrical substation in Bakersfield, Calif. She discovered that despite federal orders to secure them, the nation’s tens of thousands of substations are vulnerable to attack.

Many substations have little to no security – sometimes only a chain-link fence – and if there is an alarm system in place, the alarms are often ignored.

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Abidance Consulting, a security company, inspected nearly 1,000 substations in 14 states over the past year. “At least half had nothing but a padlock on the gate,” Abidance’s James Holler told The Wall Street Journal. “No cameras. No motion sensors or alarms.”

When one utility lost a set of substation keys when a truck was stolen, the staff didn’t even change the substation locks, Holler added.

A big part of the problem with security is that although America’s grid system is federally regulated, in reality it is an interdependent collection of locations owned and operated by utility companies and grid operators.

The fragile electrical system was basically patched together over the decades since the early 20th century. Major power sources, such as gas-fired generators and nuclear-power plants, are linked with substations to carry electricity over a network of long-distance high-voltage power lines.  Using computerized technology, substations then lower the voltage in order to deliver electricity safely to homes and businesses.

Terrorists Are Eyeing These Vulnerable, Unprotected Parts Of The Power Grid -- And There's 10,000 Of ThemWSJ calls the grid “a giant puzzle that can be configured in different ways to deliver power where and when it is needed.” While Smith the writer, points out that the motive of most substation break-ins is theft, the locations also are a potential target for terrorists who may wish to gather information for a future attack or cause immediate damage to a region.

At a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) meeting earlier this year on grid security, Gerry Cauley, head of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., said the thought of “eight or 10 vans going to different sites and blowing things up” is something that keeps him awake at night. He estimated that recovery from a coordinated attack could take months.

Differences in power demand, which can be sparked by extreme weather and time of day, cause so much variability in the use of the grid that Smith writes, “What causes a catastrophe one day might not the next, which makes security issues complex. Small problems can quickly spiral out of control.”

Human error is another factor. For example, equipment problems combined with human error caused a large transmission line to trip out of service in Arizona five years ago. While that grid is designed to withstand the loss of any one line, in this case, the current shifted to nearby lines and overloaded them. Then two transformers at two small substations shut down defensively to prevent equipment damage. The result? San Diego experienced a blackout. Street and airport traffic was halted. Raw sewage was released into the ocean. And an estimated 2.7 million households were without power in California, Arizona and Mexico.

The National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences in 2012 examined the various parts of the power grid and concluded that substations are “the most vulnerable to terrorist attack.”

“We’ve known we had an issue for a long time and have been very slow to do anything about it,” M. Granger Morgan, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who studied the San Diego blackout, told Smith.

The Foundation for Resilient Societies has called for an analysis of the impact of simultaneous attacks, both physical and cyber, on substations. Thomas Popik, chairperson of the non-profit organization, told the FERC in June that the grid is “a battlefield of the future” that needs military-type defenses.

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Michael Bardee, director of the FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability at FERC, acknowledged to The Wall Street Journal that his agency could do more to study security vulnerabilities at substations.

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Meanwhile, some local power companies are trying to beef up security. The Vermont Electric Power Co., for example, approved $12 million for an improved security program after thieves broke into and stole copper from some of its substations dozens of times between 2012 and early 2014.

With more secure fencing and better security cameras in place, the utility has not had a break-in in more than a year.

However, WSJ found nine recent substation break-ins where theft did not appear to be the motive.

One of these was at the federally owned Liberty substation in Buckeye, Ariz., which is near Phoenix. In November 2013, an intruder cut fiber-optic cables that serve Liberty and the Mead substation near Hoover Dam. It took workers two hours to fix the problem.

Two months later, two men broke into Liberty again and left after they were unable to cut power to a security trailer that had lights and cameras installed after the first incident. Investigators later discovered that most of the new security cameras had not been properly programmed or installed.

The Liberty substation is operated by the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which controls power lines used by utilities serving some 40 million people in 15 states.

A federal audit last year cited WAPA for violations of security regulations, including broken or outdated equipment, poor control over keys to critical locations and failure to install security systems.

Keith Cloud, the WAPA’s head of security, told WSJ that he has received about $300,000 for security upgrades at some of the utility’s 328 substations, including Liberty.

But to protect the system’s 40 most important control centers, he said he would need $90 million. “I don’t have the authority or budget to protect my substations,” he said.

Do you believe America’s power grid is vulnerable to a major attack? Do you think one is inevitable? Share your thoughts in the section below:

Are You Prepared For A Downed Grid? Read More Here.

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8 comments

  1. Deport the Islamists and you’ll cut down on potential terrorist by a significant amount.

    Just sayin’

  2. 10/02/16 It Finally Happened: America Gave up the Internet Today to the UN

    thepeoplesvoice.org has suffered serious damage to the script which controls the operation of the website. We are unable to repair it and we lack the funds to pay for professional help. We wanted to fight for you. At the most crucial moment for the internet, America, and the world, our voice has been silenced. It happened at the moment the internet was lost. We fought from the day Bush rigged the election and plunged the world into war and repression until now. We loved you America, we loved you internet, good by.

  3. All they need is AK-47’s and just shoot out transformers and substations. We are toast literally.

    Your site needs to be more viewed and I know the problem. Google is blocking your traffic which unless you type in the economy in an exact way your site and many others WILL NOT show up and only mainstream junk shows.

    Google has made it to where if your site isn’t dumbed for tablets your site will not be listed and also most search engines are powered someway by Google even if they are independent. You literally cannot escape being noticed by Google if you want traffic.

    Google is the AT&T of the web back when AT&T was a monopoly. Google is the monopoly of the web.

  4. We watched the Bush elections live to the end and he DID NOT rigged the elections. That is a liberal lie you have been spoonfed. Recount after recount have been shown and he was ahead.

    There were literally recounts on the recounts never before been done and Al Gore was red in the face and did nothing but scream.

    At the end of the election even when you lose your suppose to go up to the President and shake his hand in a motorcade and Al Gore did not do that. He started to do it but at the last minute turned his back and left leaving viewers speechless.

    This was the 2000 elections by the way.

  5. Its all well and fine to consider substation security… but what are we doing to harden the grid against an EMP? They may get a substation and take down a region at best…. A well placed EMP would take down a whole lot more for a longer time…. Just saying… MLAKJC

  6. People all seem to be afraid of islamists doing the damage, but they aren’t the ones I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the computer hackers in our own country who are hacking simply for the enjoyment of it, for the desire to cause chaos. I’m more afraid of the average joe down the street than I am a foreign individual causing damage to our power grid, because they’re the ones you’re expecting to do it.

    You aren’t expecting the knowledgable hacker whose 17-19 years old who hates the world and just wants to see it go to hell. That’s who WE should be worried about!

  7. Hello, I thought this was supposed to be “Off the Grid News”, not “Whine about the power grid being so vulnerable and go off on a tangent about the 2000 election”. People, we are already past peak oil. The power grids will fail. They will fail with no help from terrorists, foreign or domestic. A high wind could knock them out, and without people driving out in the middle of the night to fix them, we won’t have power. Without fossil-fuel production, we won’t have power. Any breakdown in the supply chain that serves the power grid will result in blackouts. We need to learn how to live without electricity all together; that is, only if we want to survive. I like my fridge and dishwasher just as much as the next person, but might I suggest less whining and more learning how to preserve meat.

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