Moore County attack shows U.S. electric grid's Achilles' heel
Authorities say it's still too early to say who fired gunshots into a pair of Duke Energy substations in central North Carolina, or why. But experts say the attack is a warning sign of the electric grid's vulnerability to people with bad intentions.
The sheriff in Moore County, about 100 miles east of Charlotte, said Saturday night's attacks were targeted. The attackers knew what they were doing to hit critical equipment. About 45,000 customers lost power, making it one of the most serious physical attacks on the power grid in recent U.S. history.
Independent grid security researcher Michael Mabee worries that the grid is at risk: Most substations are protected only by a surrounding chain link fence, and some well-placed shots can knock out power to tens of thousands.
"The physical attack, to be honest with you, is the threat that I'm the most concerned about, because these transformer stations are such soft targets," Mabee said Monday.
Attacking power plants or the energy grid is a federal crime. Anyone convicted faces up to 20 years in prison. And if anyone dies because of an attack, it could mean life in prison. But still, dozens of times a year, people vandalize or shoot at power facilities nationwide.
"What's included in that is anywhere from vandalism, a couple of, you know, kids destroying equipment, up through spectacular coordinated attacks, such as the attack on the Metcalf transformer in California in 2013," Mabee said.
In that attack, snipers with military-style weapons fired repeatedly at critical sections of a substation south of San Jose, California. The gunfire knocked the substation offline for a month and caused $15 million in damage, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Nobody has ever been charged in that incident.
California customers didn't lose power, because Pacific Gas & Electric was able to route electricity around the damaged site. Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said the Moore County substations were so badly damaged that wasn't possible here.
"In this instance, the lay of the land, the geography of the grid there, did not allow us any options of significance, based on the damage that we had, to be able to reroute power. So it really had to be a repair and replace operation," Brooks said.
Brooks said it's too soon to know the cost of the damage, though the sheriff said it would be in the millions of dollars. For now, crews are concentrating on restoring power, which could take until Thursday as workers must transport and install new, heavy equipment.
Anurag Srivastava, a grid technology expert at West Virginia University, says the grid is not designed to withstand an attack like this.
"Our grid is designed for failure in some of the devices at these big substations. But if a key component goes out, then we are not designed to, you know, keep providing the power to all the customers. And these kinds of attack, which is very unfortunate, are not many, so (the) grid does not prepare for that," Srivastava said.
Power companies are required to report energy disruptions of any kind to the U.S. Department of Energy — whether related to storms, equipment failure or more sinister causes, such as attacks. North Carolina has seen few grid attacks, though vandalism is more common.
According to the energy department, the most recent incident here was an unspecified physical attack on a substation in Durham County in March that did not cause a power outage.
Brooks said he was not familiar with the incident and couldn't provide more details.
Mabee, the independent researcher, started studying threats to the electric grid after he got caught in the great Northeast blackout of 2003 while living in New York. He now tracks incidents using those Department of Energy reports and says there have been 919 physical attacks on the U.S. electric grid since January 2010, and more than 100 so far this year. He said he thinks that shows U.S. laws and regulations fall short.
"The federal government does not have any authority whatsoever to tell the electric grid to protect itself from known threats, known threats, such as physical attack, cyber attack, geomagnetic disturbance or solar, you know, activity, which actually does impact the electric grid," he said.
Mabee said the U.S. grid is essentially self-regulated, and that means there's little to compel companies to protect themselves against major threats. While there are security standards for the nationwide electric grid, most state regulators do not have separate rules, says Mabee.
He worries that a coordinated series of attacks — by domestic terrorists or a foreign government — could bring an even more serious disaster.
"So a determined terrorist organization can map out the grid take out key substations and cause widespread blackouts very, very easily and probably without being caught. So it's a major Achilles' heel for the United States right now," Mabee said.
Asked about the Moore County incident, North Carolina Utilities Commission spokesman Sam Watson pointed us to the national rules. He said he can't recall an incident like it in the past. Duke Energy officials are expected to update regulators on the Moore County outage next Monday.
Meanwhile, nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack. The FBI and the state bureau of investigation have joined the sheriff's office in the search.