What if there was a terrorist attack but no one told us? What if that terrorist attack exposed the vulnerability of the entire U.S. power grid?
An April 16, 2013, attack had been virtually unreported until the The Wall Street Journal reported it yesterday. It started when someone (or some ones) entered an underground vault to cut telephone cables, and then fired more than 100 shots into PG&E’s Metcalf transmission substation (near San Jose) knocking out 17 transformers. Electric officials were able to avert a blackout, but it took 27 days to repair the damage.
The attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the U.S., said Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time.
Wellinghoff who stepped down in November, apparently gave high-level briefings to federal agencies, Congress and the White House last year. But because nothing has happened to capture the perpetrators or better safeguard the power grid, he went public with it now.
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The FBI says they don’t think it’s terrorism but:
Some people in the utility industry share Mr. Wellinghoff’s concerns, including a former official at PG&E, Metcalf’s owner, who told an industry gathering in November he feared the incident could have been a dress rehearsal for a larger event.
“This wasn’t an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation,” Mark Johnson, retired vice president of transmission for PG&E, told the utility security conference, according to a video of his presentation. “This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.” When reached, Mr. Johnson declined to comment further.
A spokesman for PG&E said the company takes all incidents seriously but declined to discuss the Metcalf event in detail for fear of giving information to potential copycats. “We won’t speculate about the motives” of the attackers, added the spokesman, Brian Swanson. He said PG&E has increased security measures.
Here is the frightening part.
Many of the system’s most important components sit out in the open, often in remote locations, protected by little more than cameras and chain-link fences.
Transmission substations are critical links in the grid. They make it possible for electricity to move long distances, and serve as hubs for intersecting power lines.
The “guts” of each substation are transformers which, increase or decrease the voltage of the electricity depending on whether it is has to travel hundreds of miles along high-voltage lines to other parts of the country or is approaching its destination.
The country’s roughly 2,000 very large transformers are expensive to build, often costing millions of dollars each, and hard to replace. Each is custom made and weighs up to 500,000 pounds, and “I can only build 10 units a month,” said Dennis Blake, general manager of Pennsylvania Transformer in Pittsburgh, one of seven U.S. manufacturers. The utility industry keeps some spares on hand.
In other words if there is a major attack it will take months to bring the entire grid back on line.
A 2009 Energy Department report said that “physical damage of certain system components (e.g. extra-high-voltage transformers) on a large scale…could result in prolonged outages, as procurement cycles for these components range from months to years.”
Mr. Wellinghoff said a FERC analysis found that if a surprisingly small number of U.S. substations were knocked out at once, that could destabilize the system enough to cause a blackout that could encompass most of the U.S.
The WSJ piece raises many red flags. The attack on the San Jose substation wasn’t kept a secret, but wasn’t widely reported either, why wasn’t the public alerted to keep their eyes open?
The FBI says the incident is still being investigated so they won’t label it as terrorism. It happened almost ten months ago, why can’t they draw a line on who perpetuated the attack an their motivation? On the other hand like the shooting at Ft. Hood, or the attack on our Benghazi mission, is the administration refusing to call it a terrorist attack in an effort to hide its impotence in the War on Terror?
Finally, what if anything has been done to protect the elements of our power grid since April? Why isn’t protecting the power grid a priority? Just think about how months-long power interruption would destroy the economy.