Protect Our Power Grid: Why Electrical Substations Surveillance Matters

Our nation’s power grid is an engineering triumph and is crucial for the proper functioning of nearly every aspect of our modern society. However, events in recent years have put a spotlight on the disconcerting fact that much of the grid infrastructure is antiquated and remains largely unsecured and vulnerable. As we take a look at several significant cases, it will become clear that Electrical Substation security is not something to be taken lightly.

Case 1: PG&E Metcalf Electrical Substation, April 16, 2013, in San Jose, CA

Perhaps the most troubling case to date happened on April 16, 2013, near San Jose, California. Just before 1:00 am, a sophisticated sniper attack took place on a PG&E Metcalf electrical substation. The attack, which lasted 19 minutes, knocked out 17 transformers and caused more than $15 million worth of damage. It could’ve very easily created a significant blackout in the San Francisco Bay area, home to tech HQ Silicon Valley, but operators were able to reroute power from other substations to prevent any outages. Repairs took nearly a month to complete.

The security risks posed by unprotected electrical substations are grossly underappreciated nationwide. In this case, the company decided to wait until daylight to investigate further, which first responders to the site have scathingly criticized. “This is far more than vandalism. This is a serious attack,” two anonymous employees told NBC, “It’s an embarrassment and a disservice to the people of Santa Clara County.”

To this day, no one has been arrested in connection with the unprecedented attack, which has been described as very sophisticated and well planned. “These were not amateurs taking potshots,” former PG&E executive Mark Johnson stated, according to Foreign Policy, “My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal” for future attacks. Motives are also unknown.

Jon Wellinghoff, Former Chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, called the attack “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.” However, he later told CNN, “This is more about the larger issue of the physical security of these high voltage substations nationwide, and the need to ensure that some defensive measures be put in place.” He suggests installing opaque fences instead of chain ones, and more sophisticated surveillance cameras for identifying perpetrators.

Case 2: Liberty Electrical Substation, November 5, 2013, near Phoenix, AZ

Liberty Electrical Substation, operated by the Western Area Power Administration, was also subjected to a malicious security breach in the same year. In late November 2013, alarms sounded at the remote facility, 35 miles outside of Phoenix, Arizona. It took two and a half days before a technician was sent to investigate what was assumed to be a false alarm. Upon arrival, it was discovered that the entire substation had been gutted. The perimeter fence was cut, metal housings inside the substation were pried open and computer equipment was stolen.

Wall Street Journal Reporter Rebecca Smith has been largely responsible for bringing media attention to these grid security issues. In her piece How America Could Go Dark, Ms. Smith spoke to head of security Keith Cloud regarding the Liberty break-in: “the substation’s security cameras proved useless: eight of 10 were broken or pointed at the sky, Mr. Cloud said. Most had been out of operation for a year or more.”

Case 3: UniSource Energy Services Valencia Plant, June 11, 2014, in Nogales, AZ

Sometime between the hours of 4:00 p.m. June 10th and 8:00 a.m. June 11, 2014, an unknown number of perpetrators illegally entered a UniSource Electrical Substation south of Tucson, Arizona and left a homemade explosive device underneath a 50,000-gallon diesel fuel tank. The detonation of the crudely-built bomb was able to penetrate the tank and cause a small leak but failed to ignite the diesel fuel and cause a much larger explosion.

The remains from the incident were discovered by a UniSource employee the next morning, who also found that a hole had been cut in the fencing protecting the electrical substation. The FBI, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the State Department of Public Safety were all subsequently notified. “The reason for the high-scale response is the plant is an electrical substation and critical to the area,” Nogales, AZ Police Lieutenant Carlos Jimenez told AZ Central. “The whole city of Nogales could have been compromised.”

Had things gone differently, 30,000 Arizona residents could have experienced significant outages, and it is not clear how long it would have taken to restore power to the critical substation. Repairs from the 2013 Metcalf sniper attack took a full 27 days to complete.

The Blaze asked UniSource Energy Services Spokesman Joe Salkowski if security cameras had captured footage of the incident, and if there were plans to upgrade their electrical substation surveillance systems moving forward. His response: “We are currently reviewing security in place at that facility as well as others in the area in hopes of identifying potential upgrades or anything that could be done to prevent similar incidents in the future.”

A massive energy crisis that would have affected the entire area was averted only by sheer dumb luck- the homemade bomb was not strong enough to cause the intended explosion. In the same Blaze piece, Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) framed the problem this way: “It seems only a matter of time before more sophisticated and perhaps more malevolent enemies seek to exploit this vulnerability…”

Federal Response, And The Current State Of Electrical Substation Security

In response to attacks like these, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has mandated that major electrical sites across the country provide adequate substation security to prevent future incidents. However, the mandates do not include thousands of vulnerable smaller substations nationwide, whose security is largely handled by the private sector.  There is not a clear understanding of who is responsible for ensuring these sites are protected. Furthermore, a WAPA audit performed in April of last year by the U.S. Department of Energy found that “significant issues still exist and issues identified in our 2010 report remain unaddressed.”

This is an ongoing issue. Almost unbelievably, the Liberty Electrical Substation and the PG&E Metcalf Transmission Substation were both subjected to subsequent break-ins, and in both cases, there were once again no arrests.

Intentional malevolence isn’t the only threat here. Last September, a tragic suicide attempt by a 26-year-old woman caused power outages for about 4,000 people in St. Charles, Missouri for over 2 hours. She easily entered an electrical substation facility and grabbed a live wire in a failed attempt to take her own life. Just weeks ago, a fire at a PG&E Substation left 88,000 San Francisco residents and 21 schools without power for seven hours. There is a very clear and pressing need to improve electrical substation security to protect our nation’s power grid.

Electrical Substation Surveillance Solutions

The technology to properly monitor and protect these remote facilities exists today. Sophisticated PTZ (Point, Tilt, Zoom) HD surveillance cameras offer unprecedented levels of control, and in many cases can be remotely controlled and accessed via a mobile devices. Threat detection notifications can be automatically sent to facility monitors if only the proper equipment is put into place. We are playing a very dangerous game by largely neglecting to utilize this technology for our electrical substations and continuing to leave our nation’s power grid vulnerable.