Attacks on Electrical Infrastructure

A February 10, 2014 article in Emergency Management Magazine titled Attack on California Electric Grid Called Terrorism brings about some very interesting speculation on an incident that occurred at an electrical substation near San Jose last year.  Unfortunately the article saves some critical information for the end and left me with a poor initial impression (i.e. assuming that the weapons used were assault rifles).  My early impression of the article, particularly having grown up in the country, was that this was the result of ‘Billy-Bob and Joe decided after a bunch of brewskis they were going to shoot up a substation’, as stated by Mark Johnson, recently retired VP of Pacific Gas and Electric. 

Toward the end of the article, the author identifies information associated to the shooting of the transformers, including the removal of 75 lb manhole covers and the cutting of fiber optic lines.  With this and other information revealed in the article, it seems likely this was more than Billy-Bob and Joe.  It’s suggested by the author that this activity could have been a ‘dress rehearsal’ for terrorists.  While I’m no terrorism expert, I offer that it’s not likely to involve any major entities such as Al-Qaeda, who are, unfortunately, must more clandestine than this – just look at how long it took us to find Bin Laden.  My guess is that this was perpetrated by a local, semi-organized, domestic group.  They did some research, but were clearly sloppy and ultimately unsuccessful, if, in fact, their goal was to cause an outage.  Nonetheless, an act such as this should certainly be categorized as terrorism, despite the origin of the perpetrators and their cause. 

This scenario, however, provides some important food for thought.  I’ve posted previously on the vulnerability of our electrical system to both intentional acts as well as natural disasters.  There are some efforts under way to increase the redundancies of our system and to create micro-grids, which would isolate impacts, which are great mitigation strategies.  The occurrence of this intentional act should bring strong consideration to prevention and protection activities to heighten security and resiliency of this infrastructure.  We need to call on our law makers to work with emergency managers, regulators, and the industry itself to require a multi-faceted approach to include protection, prevention, and mitigation efforts. 

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