N.C. substation attack exposes grid risks

By Miranda Willson | 12/07/2022 07:03 AM EST

The incident is raising questions about what utilities, state officials and the federal government can do to prevent future attacks.

A worker and substation equipment are seen Monday in Moore County, N.C., where a weekend attack on critical infrastructure caused a power outage to tens of thousands of customers.

A worker and substation equipment are seen Monday in Moore County, N.C., where a weekend attack on critical infrastructure caused a power outage to tens of thousands of customers. AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker

The attack on two power substations in North Carolina over the weekend is stoking concerns among grid experts that utilities are not doing enough to stave off physical threats to the electricity system.

But solutions to safeguard the grid may not be easy — or affordable — to implement.

About 35,000 utility customers remained without power as of Tuesday afternoon, three days after gunfire severely damaged two substations in Moore County, N.C. (Energywire, Dec. 5). Duke Energy Corp., the utility serving the region, said it was working around the clock to repair the damage with the goal of restoring power to all affected customers by midnight tonight.


As of Tuesday, police had not named suspects or released information on a possible motive or the type of firearm used in the attack. The FBI is investigating the incident.

Grid security experts say that the affected substations are outside the scope of a national rule from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) that is aimed at protecting infrastructure and applies to the most critical energy facilities and substations. That regulatory gap is increasing calls for the utility industry and regulators to consider new measures to protect assets that can still affect tens of thousands of people if knocked out.

“Why aren’t they protecting their infrastructure? It could’ve been prevented with some cheap sandbags. You really don’t need a lot of sophisticated equipment to protect this substation infrastructure,” said Jon Wellinghoff, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the CEO and founder of GridPolicy Inc.

The North Carolina attack and ensuing power outages come at a time when electricity demand is projected to increase as states and the Biden administration seek to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Carbon-free technologies such as heat pumps and electric vehicles — seen as key for addressing climate change — depend on reliable access to electric power, meaning that attacks on the grid could become more consequential to everyday life, said Richard Cowart, former chair of the Vermont Public Utilities Commission. Meanwhile, the grid is also increasingly vulnerable to more frequent, severe weather events, Cowart said.

“The more we depend on electricity for transportation, heat pumps, air conditionings, internet access and so forth, the more important it becomes to protect the integrity of power systems,” said Cowart, who is now a principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonpartisan group that supports clean energy.

Still, engineers and former regulators are divided as to whether there are cost-effective and practical solutions to better safeguard electricity infrastructure, including the more than 55,000 electric substations around the country. Substations are a key component of the grid, since they help convert power into a form that can be used in homes and businesses.

Currently, NERC’s infrastructure protection regulation, CIP-014, is designed to protect transmission stations and substations that, if inoperable, could lead to “widespread instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading within an Interconnection.” For those facilities, utilities must establish a physical security plan, which is subject to review by a third party.

Those requirements don’t apply to a wide range of substations, however, according to grid experts and former FERC commissioners. While implementing additional protections at all substations could address potential gaps, it would also come at a cost to utilities and their customers.

“The conversation that’s going to have to happen is what’s acceptable in balancing out security versus cost, and what the relative benefits of making those investments really are,” said Jonathon Monken, principal at Converge Strategies LLC, an energy security consulting firm.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said he didn’t know who was behind the substation attacks when asked by reporters. “I’m running that down,” he said.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), meanwhile, called for a thorough assessment of the state’s critical infrastructure. Such an assessment would likely include discussions with federal regulators, lawmakers and utility companies about how to bolster security and prevent future attacks, he said.

“This seemed to be too easy,” Cooper said of the attack.

Sandbags, chain fences and transformers

The shooting in North Carolina was one of a handful of deliberate attacks over the past decade on power system infrastructure.

In 2013, for example, one or more gunmen fired at Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Metcalf substation in California. The incident spurred FERC to direct NERC to adopt the existing infrastructure protection regulation for certain critical substations.

During the California attack in 2013, PG&E was able to divert power away from the substation to minimize outages. By contrast, the weekend attack in North Carolina initially knocked out power for 45,000 utility customers. 

In the recent incident, the attackers appeared to hit components of substations that are difficult to replace, causing more widespread outages in a rural area with few supplemental grid assets, Monken said.

“In rural areas, there’s not a ton of redundancy. It doesn’t take a lot to have a significant impact on the population,” he said.

Logan Stewart Kureczka, lead communications manager at Duke Energy, did not specify what parts of the substations were affected, but said that “several pieces of equipment” were hit.

“Duke Energy employs a robust physical defense system that meets – and exceeds – industry best practices,” Kureczka said in an email. “We also monitor and meet all industry standards for protecting critical infrastructure and deploy additional security measures when appropriate.”

Neil Chatterjee, a senior adviser at Hogan Lovells and former chair at FERC, said there are measures that utilities could pursue to minimize damage to substations and other infrastructure.

For example, they could consider swapping chain link fences at substations with concrete walls, to make it harder to shoot at them. Echoing Wellinghoff, Chatterjee said sandbags could also protect substation transformers, which adjust the voltage of electric power, “so that should they be shot at, they could at least absorb some of the impact.”

“There are things we can do to make modest improvements to facilities to better protect them. Is it going to be perfect? Is it going to protect every attack? No,” he said. “What I’m looking at is what is practical from an energy security standpoint.”

Utilities could also consider making it easier to replace parts when attacks do occur, according to experts.

Many existing substations were built in ways that are specific to their location, which makes it harder to fix or rebuild them, said Richard Mroz, a senior adviser at the grid security advocacy group Protect Our Power and former president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. But some electric companies have begun to proactively install and stockpile similar, more universal equipment so that they can share resources with each other, Mroz said.

“The industry should probably look at more of that kind of effort, so you can respond quicker to replace that [equipment],” he said.

All of these solutions would require consideration of costs and benefits, including the likelihood of more attacks and how disruptive they could be, Chatterjee and others noted. The question also isn’t just for federal regulators, but for state regulators as well, since FERC does not have jurisdiction over small, local distribution lines and associated stations.

Notably, some initiatives to make grid infrastructure more resilient to physical attacks could also improve electric reliability during extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change, experts said. For example, building more transmission lines to better connect different regions of the power grid could make it easier for regional grid operators to export and share electric power during emergencies.

“Certainly it’s something for utilities and power engineers to start thinking more about — not just aging infrastructure, [impacts] of extreme weather, and changing needs of customers, but the impact of physical, as well as cyber, attacks on power infrastructure,” Kyri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in an email.

Reporters Mike Soraghan, Peter Behr and the Associated Press contributed.