Guarding the grid

WICHITA, Kansas – Electricity powers our homes and businesses. It is a lifeline to keep our infrastructure running smoothly across America, but a year ago, the power industry received a wake up call.

“The electric grid is a high priority, vulnerable target,” said Eric Ervin, Westar Director of Corporate Security.

The Wall Street Journal obtained a report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about vulnerabilities of the American power grid.

It detailed an attack that happened at the PG&E Metcalf Substation near San Jose in April of 2013.

The suspects cut phone lines and fired off a 100 shots.

It damaged 17 transformers.

It was attempt to knock out power to Silicon Valley, but was it terrorists or vandals?

“Why not rocket launchers, why not a bomb of some kind versus shooting at it with a rifle, which would make one to think it was more or less the line of vandalism,” said Dan Jablonski, former FBI agent.

The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office released this grainy surveillance video in hopes of catching the suspects.

A blackout was avoided by rerouting power, but it took millions of dollars and a month to repair the damage.

Some in the power industry believed the sniper attack was a dry run to see if terrorists could sabotage America’s power grids.

However, the FBI eventually ruled out terrorism.

The story received little press at the time, but in Kansas, power companies took notice.

KSN asked what is being done to protect our grid in Kansas.

“Well, there’s no silver bullet to security here at Westar or the industry. So, we take a defensive approach to security with multiple layers,” said Erivn.

That includes barbed wire fences, cameras with thermal imaging, and internet security to keep hackers out.

“Some of our sub-stations are not manned, some are. We have a central monitoring station, that does monitor our video footage and is monitored and alerted for intrusions,” said Ervin.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that if nine specific sub-stations out of the 55,000 in the US were taken down, power would be lost from coast to coast.

Philip Propes with Southwest Power Pool, which oversees power transmission and distribution in Kansas, isn’t buying it.

“The grid is much more robust and reliable and built to weather a variety of different problems,” said Philip Propes, Southwest Power Pole Director of Compliance. “Again, I think those who have those doomsday type outlooks are frankly being creative,” said Propes.

There isn’t just one main power grid in America.

Lines are inter-connected through three regions.

KSN asked Westar what would happen if somebody rendered one of their sub-stations useless.

“Well, Westar, as well as the rest of the industry, really focuses on grid resiliency, and, so if any one location, like Benton here, if something were to happen to this substation, we’d be able to reroute power to our customers.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the non-profit group, North American Electricity Reliablity “Guard the Grid”, perform inspections and watch out for potential threats.

Ultimately, it is up to the power companies themselves to review their own security measures to prevent attacks.

KSN tried to obtain those detailed reports, and we learned they are confidential and not available for review.

“We need to keep our security controls very secure,” said Ervin. “We don’t want to release that to the public necessarily to exploit some of our security measures we have in place.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the report obtained by the Wall Street Journal should have been kept private to protect national security.

It’s now taking steps to make sure sensitive information about power grids is kept secret.

Some officials believe the California attack proved how vulnerable America’s power grids are, but former FBI agent Dan Jablonski says the bigger threat in the future will come from key strokes not guns.

“To learn where the electricity goes, if they’re able to do it computer wise, versus actually going out on site to shoot to do whatever out there to disable it, would seem to be a much greater threat.”

Oversight, Government and Industry links:
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
North American Electric Reliability Corporation
Edison Electric Institute: Cyber & Physical Security
DHS: National Infrastructure Advisory Council

Educational links:
OSHA – Electric Power Illustrated Glossary
University of Wisconsin – Primer on Energy | The Grid
Earthly Issues: U.S. Power Grid

Surveillance video of California power station attack

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