Policymakers in several states are seeking to strengthen power grid security after a series of attacks on substations in recent months exposed vulnerabilities and knocked out power for thousands.
Over the past year, at least four countries have reported deliberate attacks on electricity transmission facilities. The most significant outage occurred in early December, when more than 45,000 utility customers in Moore County, North Carolina, were without power after two substations were attacked by gunfire.
Republican state Rep. Ben Moss is proposing legislation to strengthen security and told the AP that the December attacks have turned his district into a “ghost town.” He added: “When the power goes out, you don’t have heat, you don’t have food, you can’t get fuel or some medicine, people are insecure.”
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The draft bill reached by the AP would require utilities to provide 24-hour security at substations, and the security improvements would vary in different locations, as some facilities are closed and have video surveillance, while others are relatively exposed. Moss sees his bill as a “conversation starter” that he hopes will help lawmakers, utilities and safety experts identify cost-effective defenses that won’t result in higher prices for consumers.
Last week, authorities in North Carolina reported an incident involving a shooting at a substation in Randolph County. There were no reported outages, and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is reportedly investigating the incident. No arrests have been made in either the Moore County or Randolph County substation attacks.
Last year, there were at least 12 incidents involving intentional damage to substations in South Carolina, including an incident the FBI responded to days after Moore County, North Carolina, in which a shooting was reported but power remained on.
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Utilities in South Carolina are urging lawmakers to toughen penalties for destroying electrical infrastructure, and a bill in the state Senate would introduce a sliding scale based on damage done to facilities. Under the proposal, damages of more than $25,000 could land an offender in prison for up to 20 years – double the current maximum sentence of 10 years. The 25-year sentence would be applied if someone dies or is harmed by the disruption of work after the attack.
Attacks on power plants are also common in the Pacific Northwest. Utilities in Oregon and Washington reported 15 physical attacks on electrical facilities in 2022, including 10 in the last two months of the year. A series of attacks on four substations in the Puget Sound area on Christmas Day left 15,000 customers without power.
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Two men in Washington state face charges of conspiracy to damage energy facilities after they attacked four substations tens of miles apart on December 25, 2022, knocking out power to 15,000 customers in the Puget Sound area. Prosecutors say the motive was to break into a local business while the power was out.
The Washington State Office of Energy is seeking to make physical and cybersecurity updates to the state’s electric infrastructure as it undergoes a review under the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act.
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No arrests have been made in the deliberate attack on a substation in Clackamas County, Oregon, that occurred on Thanksgiving morning. The Oregon Public Utilities Commission is working with the utilities it regulates to increase vigilance and explore safety improvements at facilities.
Federal energy regulators also want to improve the security of the power grid. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees America’s major power system, is expected to submit a report and make recommendations on possible safety improvements by early April.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.