In the early morning hours of April 16, 2013, an unknown group of assailants staged a sophisticated attack on PG&E’s Metcalf Electrical Substation, cutting crucial fiber-optic cables and shooting the cooling systems of 17 transformers, causing them to crash.
Metcalf is a major power grid that funnels electricity to Silicon Valley where high-tech giants Google, Apple, and Microsoft – not to mention hundreds of thousands of people – reside.
“The National Power Grid” Source: energy.gov
Thankfully, the operators at the substation were able to re-route power before significant outages occurred.
It’s still unknown whether the attackers were domestic vandals or a terrorist group and to date no arrests have been made. However, the fact that the perpetrators were very highly trained, used high-powered assault weapons and had intimate knowledge of Metcalf’s power grid and its vulnerabilities, had officials calling this attack a “wake-up call.”
TTR Substations and Edison Power Constructors “hardening assets” at a California substation
A PG&E spokesman said, “This attack was a game-changer, not just for PG&E but for the utility industry as a whole.” Officials from state and federal agencies, utility companies, and manufacturers’ of high voltage electrical transformers all agree: A coordinated attack of this caliber on multiple substations could result in “widespread instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading within an interconnection,” or even worse, a complete blackout causing catastrophic impact on the general population and the nation’s economy.
Electrical technicians erecting lattice structures along the perimeter of a substation so cameras and additional surveillance gear can be installed
In response to the Metcalf attack, which resulted $15 million in damages taking 27 days of restoration, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) devised a list of security guidelines energy companies need to perform in order to beef up security. From this list, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) created “Substation Reliability Standard Order CIP-014-1,” which requires utility companies to perform annual risk assessments, evaluate potential threats and vulnerabilities, and implement security plans to protect against attacks. For added safety, a third party is required to confirm the risks and review the plan. Measures include: installing bulletproof fencing, motion sensors and lighting around the substation perimeters, placing vulnerable cables underground, moving to gas insulated switch gear technology (GIS), and physically separating A & B systems.
Our nation’s electric grid is a complex system, and keeping it safe and secure is no easy task. It will require constant vigilance from industry as well as government.