A carefully-staged sniper attack on a California power station last year may well have been a rehearsal for a much larger assault on America’s highly vulnerable power grid with unimaginably vast and extended disruptive consequences.
On April 16, just after midnight, a small group of armed people slipped into an underground vault near Highway 101 just outside San Jose and cut some telephone cables.
About a half-hour later surveillance cameras at Pacific Gas and Electric’s near-by Metcalf substation detected a beam of light. Investigators now theorize that it came from a flashlight used to guide sniper targeting of power transformer cooling systems filled with oil, causing the system to leak, overheat and crash.
The 20-minute assault knocked out 17 giant transformers that fed electricity to the Silicon Valley, resulting in about $16 million in damage. Unknown shooters escaped before police arrived and continue to remain at-large.
Jon Wellinghoff, who then chaired the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), described the attack as “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the [U.S.] grid that has ever occurred." And although power was successfully rerouted to avoid a blackout, it required 27 days to get the substation fully operational again.
Wellinghoff briefed Congress, the White House and federal agencies that “If the attack were replicated around the country, it could take down the entire electrical grid." He fears that domestic terrorists are now planning to do just that.
Although there have been FBI denials that terrorism was involved, Wellinghoff told The Associated Press, “I don't know what the definition of terrorism is other than when an extremely well-trained group attacks a major piece of infrastructure in an expertly planned attack.”
Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey agreed that the attack was carried out in a “disciplined military fashion" by three or four men caught on video who systematically fired their weapons “quickly and professionally disposed of everything they had.” He said this was no mere act of “hooliganism,” but rather was “a systematic attempt to take down the electric grid.”
If the Metcalf incident was simply the work of vandals, those culprits were extremely sophisticated and well-armed. More than 100 shell casings, all free of fingerprints, were found at the site near small piles of rocks believed to have been left by an advance scout to mark where snipers could get their best shots.
As Paul Stockton, a former assistant secretary of defense and current president of the risk-assessment firm Cloud Peak Analytics warns, “The power grid, built over many decades in a benign environment, now faces a range of threats it was never designed to survive.”
Some substations are located in remote areas surrounded only by chain-link fences which offer little protection. In addition, nation-wide power transfer capabilities are limited. Each of the three regional electric systems, the West, the East and Texas, has limited interconnections, making it difficult for them to help each other in the event of an emergency.
A March 13 Wall Street Journal report discussing sensitive FERC information about grid vulnerabilities prompted Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to write to DOE Inspector General Gregory Freidman. Their letter warned: “In the wrong hands, such documents potentially could provide a roadmap for those who would seek to harm the nation by intentionally causing one or more blackouts.”
FERC estimated that the U.S. could suffer a prolonged coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs were to knock out just nine of our nation’s 55,000 substations. Many of the critical transformers are currently imported from other countries, requiring months to transport and install replacements. Accordingly, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation is establishing a spare equipment database to share information on extra inventory should some equipment suffer damage in an attack.
Although progress is slow, much higher security levels are achievable. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Jon Wellinghoff observes that “there are probably less than 100 critical high-voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack . . . it is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to so.”
Some utility companies are making substantial investments to this end. Virginia-based Dominion Resources Inc., for example, plans to spend between $300 million-$500 million within the next seven years to target-harden its facilities.
It is urgent that other public and private organizations make it a high priority to follow suit. As unimaginable as life would be without the benefit of electricity to support vital communication and control networks, to power countless types of machines and devices, and to keep the lights on, that’s exactly what our enemies most likely have in mind for us.
Larry Bell is a professor and endowed professor at the University of Houston, where he directs the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture and heads the graduate program in space architecture. He is author of “Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax,” and his professional aerospace work has been featured on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel-Canada. Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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