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Utility Attacks

UTILITY SECURITY PROFESSIONALS are living in the post-Metcalf era. Last year’s mysterious attack on a power station in Metcalf, California, has heightened the importance of protecting the U.S. electrical grid—not only from natural disasters and everyday crime, such as theft and vandalism, but from a potential terrorist attack.

During the Metcalf incident in April 2013, snipers opened fire on an electrical substation for nearly 19 minutes, knocking out 17 giant transformers and causing more than $15 million in damage. The attack brought the utility grid’s susceptibility to terrorism to the fore.

“Prior to 2014…physical security initiatives among grid owners were focused primarily on preventing vandalism and theft (of copper wire) rather than a terrorist attack,” writes Paul Parfomak, a specialist in energy and infrastructure policy with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), in a recent CRS report, Physical Security of the U.S. Power Grid: High-Voltage Transformer Substations.

The CRS report focuses on one of the more important components of the grid: high voltage (HV) transformers. HV transformer units make up less than 3 percent of all transformers in U.S. power substations, but they carry 60 to 70 percent of the nation’s electricity that flows through the 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the grid. And they are not secure, according to the report.

“There is widespread agreement among government, utilities, and manufacturers that HV transformers in the United States are vulnerable to terrorist attack, and that such an attack potentially could have catastrophic consequences,” Parfomak writes.

How likely is such an attack? More work needs to be done to get a better handle on that question, the report recommends. An effective multitransformer attack would require a certain level of sophistication on the part of attackers, including a good understanding of the operational aspects of the grid. Consequently, more analysis is needed to ascertain attacker capabilities and potential targets, and clearer assessments need to be made about where and how the grid would be most vulnerable. A continued lack of such analysis could lead to a poorly executed grid security program.

“Incomplete or ambiguous threat information may lead to inconsistency in physical security among HV transformer owners, inefficient spending of limited security resources at facilities that may not really be under threat, ordeployment of security measures against the wrong threat,” Parfomak writes.

Given the need for more analysis and assessments, the report asks Congress to do further work in four main issue areas. First, the report calls for more focus on identifying transformers and substations that can be considered truly critical and are of national significance. A 2013 study by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), for example, identified only 30 as critical. Failing to make these designations risks the possibility of hardening too many substations or hardening the wrong ones.

But to make these designations in a strategically sound way, policymakers need to consider all potential threats that the grid faces, not just a terrorist attack, says energy expert Jason Black, who leads the grid solutions research team at Battelle, the nonprofit research and development organization.

“We will have a lot more hurricanes, than—hopefully—we will have physical attacks,” Black says, so the critical designation process should reflect that. Moreover, strategic designation depends on what level of risk policymakers are willing to accept. “For an event like Hurricane Sandy, we may have a certain amount of outages we will accept, and some we will not,” Black says.

Second, the report emphasizes the importance of keeping critical transformer information confidential. A strategic grid security plan will likely require more independent risk assessments by outsiders, meaning that more sensitive information about the grid will be shared among utilities, consultants, and other third parties. “Ensuring that [sensitive information] generated and transferred among these entities remains secure could require special attention,” Parfomak writes.

However, the need for some confidentiality, while important, must be balanced with the public’s need to know enough information about threat levels, Black says. “As a rate payer, I want to know that my money is being well spent.”

The report also stresses the importance of maintaining adequate HV transformer protection, especially given that funding for security is not unlimited. “Security measures, in themselves, are cost items, with no direct monetary return. The benefits are in the avoided costs of potential attacks whose probability is generally not known. This makes cost-justification very difficult,” Parfomak writes.

That point addresses a fundamental challenge about electric power security, Black says—the grid was never designed with antiterrorism safeguards in mind. “We don’t have a system that’s hardened against terrorist attacks,” he explains. That means examining all potential hazards, prioritizing, and making the most efficient and strategic investments possible.

The report calls on federal officials to be as clear and consistent as possible when releasing threat assessments, so that sound security policy decisions can be made.

Parfomak offers an example of inconsistent threat information from federal officials—discussion of the Metcalf attack, which so far is unsolved. “Some federal officials reportedly have characterized the Metcalf incident as a domestic terrorist attack, potentially a ‘dry run’ for a more destructive attack on multiple HV transformer substations,” he writes. “However, the FBI has stated that it does not believe Metcalf was a terrorist incident.”