A mysterious attack on an electrical substation and fiber optic cables in California’s Silicon Valley last spring has the FBI, intelligence officials and members of Congress worried – and some officials even think the “military-style” attack may have been a dress rehearsal for an all-out assault on the electrical and communications grids.
Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California) described the incident as “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.”
Even though the attack was ignored by national media, its nature was worrisome enough to prompt an FBI investigation, Congressional hearings and a $250,000 reward offer from AT&T. Most disturbing of all the attack was decidedly simple and low tech. The attack was described in a Foreign Policy magazine story.
What happened and why officials are worried
Here are the details of the incident that has federal officials and power company executives so worried:
Someone last year entered the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Metcalf substation in South San Jose, California, around 1 a.m. through manholes. The unidentified intruder or intruders cut a number of fiber optic cables, which knocked out landline service, some local 911 local service and cell phone service in the area. The saboteurs or saboteur then used a high-powered rifle or rifles to fire 100 rounds into the transformers in the facility. This caused cooling oil to leak out of the transformers, which made the devices overheat.
“These were not amateurs taking potshots,” former PG&E Vice President Mark Johnson said of the attack. “My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal…”
A month later, a man dressed in all black was seen lurking around the substation. Sheriff’s deputies launched a manhunt but found nothing.
There was no long-term damage, although the San Jose Mercury News initially advised local residents to conserve power.
Grid attack ignored
What’s even more frightening is that investigators have few clues. They don’t even know how many people were involved in the attack. Nor do they know who was responsible for it or what the motivation was.
The incident was at first dismissed as vandalism. It was investigated by the San Jose County Sheriff’s Office and not the FBI. All investigators have to go on is grainy black and white surveillance video.
“Initially, the attack was being treated as vandalism and handled by local law enforcement,” an unidentified intelligence official told Foreign Policy magazine. “However, investigators have been quoted in the press expressing opinions that there are indications that the timing of the attacks and target selection indicate a higher level of planning and sophistication.”
Rifles pose greater threat to power grid than cyber attacks
The South San Jose incident proves that common items such as rifles, hammers and power tools could pose just as great a threat to the grid than cyber attacks. That belief is shared by Jon Wellinghoff, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
“There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” Wellinghoff told a Bloomberg event in Washington. “I don’t think we have the level of physical security we need.”
Wellinghoff is most worried about the vulnerability of transformers which can be easily damaged by gunfire or physical attacks with sledgehammers. The chairman noted that transformers are custom built and take between 18 and 36 months to make – which means if one is taken down, the power could be out in an area for a while. The National Academy of Sciences is so worried about the vulnerability of transformers it is asking the government and utilities to stockpile the devices.
An attacker “could get 200 yards away with a .22 rifle and take the whole thing out,” Wellinghoff said of transformers. He noted that such simple measures as putting stronger metal casings on transformers and fences that block a shooter’s view of the substation could protect the grid.
The South San Jose incident was one of two known attacks on the grid in 2013. An Arkansas man was arrested for three attacks on power lines in August, September and October.
Fortunately there is something that families and business owners can do to protect themselves from a downed grid. They can follow the lead of big business and install a back-up power system or get an alternative source of power.