By David Sweet

While not without controversy or turmoil, the Winter Olympics in Sochi concluded safely and brilliantly, marking the first time the event had been held in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, the spectre of terrorism hung over the Olympics in light of credible threats to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere of the games. Whether at an international sporting event such as the Olympics or in the provision of day-to-day services such as electricity, in this day and age, security of people and critical facilities will always be paramount. That is why the revelations in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal detailing attacks on the power grid in California are so chilling.

Jon Wellinghoff, who recently stepped down as chairman of the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), told in detail about the methodical takedown of the PG&E Metcalf substation in California, which is a critical facility for service into Silicon Valley, and why he calls this ‘the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred’ in the US. Wellinghoff details the timeline of the attack, which began with cutting communication cables in an underground vault, followed by 19 minutes of firing of over 100 rounds, likely from an AK-47, into the cooling fins of 17 transformers that caused them to leak 52,000 gallons (197,000 litres) of oil, overheat and crash. By targeting the fins the assailants avoided the possibility of an explosion that would have brought immediate and unwanted attention to the attack. The shell casings found were free of fingerprints, another indicator that this was not just a random incident. It took PG&E 27 days to bring the Metcalf facility back online.

In discussions I have had with Wellinghoff, what is of even greater concern than this single incident is the relative ease with which it can be replicated throughout the US and the severe consequences if this were to happen. He has indicated that, based on studies done while at FERC, if a relatively small number of similar substations went down in strategic locations then the entire grid could be disabled relatively quickly. While other federal authorities are disputing whether this was an act of terrorism, based on these facts and consequences, it really does not matter what you call it. Although a great deal of attention has been devoted recently to the cyber threat, the chain link fence and camera are our first lines of defence against an outright physical attack that can have devastating consequences.

While, no doubt, much more can be done to protect this infrastructure, it will always suffer from some degree of vulnerability as it is a large, attractive and relatively soft target. Wellinghoff has always been a strong supporter of decentralized energy technologies and he readily agrees that this is one of the ways to provide greater energy security. Multiple points of smaller generation can make the grid more robust and secure whether the attack is from a ‘superstorm’ or a terrorist. While poles and wires can be replaced relatively quickly (but not always cheaply), an attack on transformers and other hardware can take longer to repair and cause a more profound service disruption. The challenge going forward will be for grid-based and decentralised energy technologies to work together to provide better service and greater security for the end user.

David Sweet
Executive Director, WADE

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