Energy

Why officials haven't provided solutions to securing US power grid

Key pieces of U.S. infrastructure have been subject to attacks recently, but protecting against these isn't a simple feat for any certain agency.

Why officials haven't provided solutions to securing US power grid
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When 45,000 people lost power in North Carolina in December, the national issue of securing the nation's electrical grid system was exposed, and it doesn't have a clear solution.

"Protecting critical infrastructure like our power system must be a top priority," said Gov. Roy Cooper, (R) North Carolina. "This kind of attack raises a new level of threat." 

The cause of the outage — someone shooting two electrical substations through a chain link fence — outraged the state. But as shocking as the attack was, it wasn't all that rare.

It was one of a record number of more than 100 physical attacks aimed at the country's electrical grid last year, according to the Department of Energy. The motive for the attacks is unclear.

"We are aware of other incidents that occurred in Oregon and southern Washington, as well as the incidents from North Carolina earlier in this winter time," said Sgt. Darrien Moss, Jr., with the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.

A similar attack in Washington state left 17,000 people without power on Christmas Day last year. And there have been reported attacks already in the first few weeks of 2023. A North Carolina utility company announced Tuesday a substation outside of Charlotte was damaged by an "apparent gunshot." That attack fortunately didn't cause an outage.

Criminal investigations underway after continued power grid attacks
Criminal investigations underway after continued power grid attacks

Criminal investigations underway after continued power grid attacks

2022 had the highest number of attacks on the nation's power grid system in a decade, according to Politico.

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Jon Wellinghoff is the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC — the agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity. He says no particular agency is in charge of the grid's security.

"The FBI, Homeland Security, DOE, FERC — none of those agencies has specific congressional authority to say 'you are responsible for securing the grid,'" Wellinghoff said.

He says during his time as chairman in President Barack Obama's first term, security barely came up.

"It was a extremely small part of the job," Wellinghoff said. "Security was and I think still is a very small part of FERC's overall mission and responsibility."

But police warn substations are easy targets. They're often in remote areas with no surveillance and can be susceptible to simple gunfire.

Proposed solutions — like more physical barriers, cameras and even armed guards — are often deemed impractical or too expensive. Instead, many in the industry have called for more "redundancy" in the system.

"Adding redundancy to the system is another way of ensuring continued service, even if you do lose one leg.... Now, that can be expensive, but you know, so is losing power for multiple days," said Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher and scientist at the University of Texas. "If we have circuits that are critical, say they have hospital or EMS facilities on them or 911 call centers, they generally have multiple, multiple points of entry."

Officials have acknowledged this growing threat in recent weeks. The outgoing FERC chairman ordered a review of physical security standards across the country, and the Department of Homeland Security warned of a "heightened threat environment" for "critical infrastructure."

What makes the US power grid so vulnerable to blackouts?
What makes the US power grid so vulnerable to blackouts?

What makes the US power grid so vulnerable to blackouts?

The U.S. power grid is extensive — and precarious.

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