Following attacks on substations and other energy infrastructure, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday ordered the North American Electric Reliability Corp. to determine whether physical security grid reliability standards should be strengthened.
FERC directed NERC, which develops grid reliability standards, to consider requiring physical risk assessments for more bulk-power transmission stations, substations and associated primary control centers.
The grid watchdog organization should also consider bolstering the risk assessments, which are already required for some facilities. FERC told NERC to report on its findings in 120 days.
Earlier this month, two Duke Energy substations were damaged by firearms in North Carolina, causing about 45,000 customers to lose power, FERC said in its decision Thursday.
Last month, there were attacks on substations in Oregon and Washington owned by Puget Sound Energy, the Cowlitz County Public Utility District, Portland General Electric and Bonneville Power Administration, according to the Seattle Times.
And earlier this year, three men pled guilty in a domestic terrorism plot to attack the grid, FERC noted in its decision.
“It is important that we fully and clearly review the effectiveness of our existing physical security standard to determine whether additional improvements are necessary to safeguard the bulk power system,” FERC Chairman Richard Glick said in a statement.
Attacks on electrical equipment are relatively common, according to FERC Commissioner Mark Christie.
“Transformers are out there on every city block … they're vulnerable to a drunk with a gun and an attitude,” Christie said at FERC’s monthly meeting. But “substations are a different ballgame” where damage can cause widespread power outages, he said.
The attacks in North Carolina, like the sniper attack at the Metcalf substation in California in 2013, were “sophisticated,” he said.
The FBI and other investigators need to determine what’s behind the apparent uptick in attacks on grid equipment, Glick said during a media briefing Thursday.
“Is there something more sinister going on? Are people trying to take part of the grid out and have people lose power on purpose? And for what reason?” Glick asked.
Some of the attacks are on equipment at the distribution level, which is under state oversight, Glick said during the agency’s meeting.
“We need to work with our state colleagues as well to make sure that we're prepared and they're prepared, and that we can all do as much as we can to make sure that the grid is as secure as possible,” he said.
Requiring additional security, such as high-definition cameras, at substations and other bulk-power facilities will be expensive, Christie said. The Department of Energy should consider using funds from the bipartisan infrastructure act to help defray the costs of bolstering physical grid security, he said.
The expense of increasing the security at substations and other parts of the grid likely outweighs the cost of power outages, Glick said during the media briefing. Power outages during Winter Storm Uri in 2021 caused billions of dollars in losses and expenses in Texas, he said.