State legislators are proposing protections for power grids after attacks (2023)

RALEIGH, North Carolina-- When gunfire at two substations knocked power to thousands of homes in central North Carolina for several days in early December, Republican Rep. Ben Moss watched as his vibrant neighborhood of family farms, small businesses and sprawling golf courses " turned into a ghost town." . "

After the recent attack on a substation in Randolph County, northeast of Charlotte, Moss urges his colleagues to prioritize new legislation that will protect the state's critical infrastructure when legislative session begins in earnest this week. He is one of the first state legislators to propose power grid protections this year amid a series of attacks on substations across the United States, particularly in the Carolinas and the Pacific Northwest.

Recent attacks in Moore County, North Carolina, and others in Washington, Oregon, South Carolina and Nevada have highlighted the vulnerability of the country's extensive power grid, which security experts have long warned could be a target for domestic extremists.

Legislators in at least two affected states, North Carolina and South Carolina, have begun to propose solutions.

“I don't want anyone else to go through what (Moore County) went through,” said Moss, a 2024 candidate for state labor commissioner, whose county had a peak of more than 45,000 customers without power. "If the power goes out, you don't have heat, food, gas or medicine, people are not safe."

Moss is drafting a bill, tentatively obtained by the Associated Press, that would require utility companies to provide 24-hour security at substations that convert high-voltage electricity into the lower voltages that power communities. Security arrangements vary by location, some are already surrounded by nearby cameras while others are more exposed.

He sees the bill as "a starting point for conversations" among legislators, utilities and security experts to help the General Assembly identify economic defenses that don't raise consumer prices.

"People keep saying, 'It's going to cost money, who's going to foot the bill?'" Moss told WRAL News. "You know, the last thing I want to see is the cost passed on to the consumer. But we know what it costs to not have protection."

Thomas Popik directs the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a non-profit energy policy group. He says the cost of increasing safety can be upwards of $100,000 per substation and likely upwards of $1 million for large substations. There are more than 10,000 substations across the country.

But not all installations need major security improvements, Popik says, because not all installations are equally important.

“The really important substations, the high voltage substations, the long distance transmission substations, the substations that could cause blackouts for hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, those are the ones we need to focus on,” Popik told WRAL. . “If all substations must be protected, this reduces the resources available to the highest priority substations.

Popik welcomes any discussion of low-cost security upgrades to the electrical grid in general. He says remotely monitored cameras, gunshot detectors, fences and even ballistic barriers can dramatically improve security.

Moss says those are some of the options he also has in mind.

"I think we have the technology where I'm not saying it will never happen again, but it has to be a bigger challenge."

Duke Energy, which owns the Moore County substation, said Monday that the company was working with local, state and federal agencies on the ongoing investigation. The company also said that it has several layers of security in place to protect its system.

"Our security strategy is constantly evolving, and we leverage each event to improve that process and better serve customers," Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said in a statement. "Over the last few weeks, we've reviewed events in Moore County, as well as our system as a whole, to capture best practices and other information that will support our future safety and resilience strategy."

He added: "We are currently unable to speculate on the cost of any potential improvements we may make."

Calls for increased vigilance come amid questions about the Moore County shootings. The FBI is still looking for information and no arrests have been made.

Federal regulators in December ordered a review of physical security standards across the country's vast power transmission network in the aftermath of the North Carolina attacks. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees the country's bulk electric power system, has until early April to submit a report and recommend possible improvements.

Manny Cancel, senior vice president of NERC and executive director of the Center for Electricity Analysis and Sharing, said the situation calls for more communication and collaboration between different levels of government, industry leaders and enforcement agencies.

"Frequency has increased, targeting has increased," Cancel said. "What we've seen are patterns of groups ... or assets that are very close to each other and are repeatedly attacked."

Public utilities in South Carolina, where shots were fired near a Duke Energy facility but did no damage days after the North Carolina shooting, are calling on lawmakers to increase penalties for the intentional destruction of electrical or other infrastructure. utility properties.

A state Senate proposal would establish a graduated scale based on the amount of damage done: If it costs more than $25,000 to repair equipment and cover losses, the offender faces up to 20 years in prison, double the current maximum of 10 years.

A maximum sentence of 25 years would apply if someone died or their health was threatened by a resulting fault.

The president of Dominion Energy in South Carolina, Keller Kissam, said the state had at least 12 incidents last year of people intentionally damaging equipment.

"If you want to demoralize people, you keep them in the dark," he said.

Some state senators feared the law could be used against hunters who accidentally damage supply equipment. Kissam agreed, but sometimes said the damage was not accidental, as hunters use equipment to adjust the aim of their guns or for target practice. A subcommittee plans to consider the bill in a few weeks.

Another South Carolina bill provides for tougher penalties for destruction caused specifically by a weapon or explosive.

Brian Harrell, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the US Department of Homeland Security, said that while tougher penalties for equipment tampering could be a deterrent, state legislators could better support public funds for utility companies, releasing additional security measures.

“Specifically securing funding for perimeter security, cameras and alarms,” said Harrell, who now oversees security for a multi-state power company.

Building all the new security features would cost about $2.5 million per site, he said. However, many substations are already fenced, which significantly reduces costs. For around US$800,000, a single substation can be equipped with pan/tilt/zoom cameras, intrusion detection and an access control system.

The Pacific Northwest has become a hot spot for these physical attacks, with public services in Washington and Oregon reporting at least 15 incidents in 2022, 10 of them in the last two months of the year.

On Christmas Day, squatters attacked four substations in Washington, breaking in, setting fire to equipment and temporarily knocking out power to thousands of customers.

Michael Furze, director of the Washington State Office of Energy, said that while no legislation specifically addressing substation safety has been introduced, broader bipartisan discussions are taking place about grid resiliency.

Washington is already overhauling its electrical infrastructure as part of the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which commits the state to zero greenhouse gas emissions in electricity by 2045. Physical and cybersecurity upgrades are underway as the power grid passes for significant changes to meet the new standards. said fart.

"'Security by design' is a core component of these systems," he said.

In neighboring Oregon, the state's Public Utilities Commission is working with regulated utilities to increase surveillance and investigate potential safety upgrades after gunfire damaged two substations southeast of Portland in late November. Spokeswoman Kandi Young said the commission is monitoring the proposed legislation and is not aware of any related bills introduced in this session.

And in Nevada, where a man set fire to a solar power plant this month, a search of 138 bills with pre-filled text found none that specifically addressed the safety of electrical infrastructure. But with more than two weeks to go before the start of the biennial session, most legislative proposals have yet to be formally tabled.


Hannah Schoenbaum is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that brings journalists to local newsrooms to cover classified issues.


Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, and Gabe Stern in Reno, Nevada contributed coverage.

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