The Grid Optimization Blog

Utility Terrorism: Nothing New

But now the government is involved and look out!

It finally leaked, and it’s all over the news now: The Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 7 that last April the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) Metcalf substation came under attack. Fiber optic and phone lines were cut, and more than 100 rifle rounds were fired into substation equipment, disabling a number of large transformers. Damage was estimated at around $16 million. Metcalf substation is a major 500kV substation in the South San Francisco bay area. I worked on R&D projects there several times and remember how accessible it is.

The transformers didn’t explode, which would usually be expected. And the outages were minimized by rerouting the power.

Now maybe the attackers were just naïve about the system, or maybe they were just practicing for the big one, because with a little more effort they could have majorly shut down the cities by the Bay.

But, really, experienced utility industry folks throughout the United States have always known the vulnerabilities of almost all utility structures. We’ve even recently seen utility attacks in other countries. See Terrorism: How Vulnerable is the Grid? (http://tdworld.com/blog/terrorism-how-vulnerable-grid )

So why aren’t we better prepared? Several reasons – the biggest is that no one really knows what to do unless we build giant enclosures around substations and underground transmission and distribution circuits. Good luck with that one!

Then there’s the hyper-attention that cybersecurity gets. The government, through the DOE loves to fund those glitzy research projects, even though utility leaders have tried to communicate that no one will resort to traceable high tech when they can simply stand a half mile away with a rifle and blow out a transformer that could take weeks or even months to replace.

Well, now we have the government’s attention. The Wall Street Journal said that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and some other senators are going to ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to "set minimum security standards for critical substations."

So the DOE will continue to shell out taxpayer money to cybersecurity consultants while committees start forming to study the problem and pump out drafts of paper standards.

Looking at the glass half full, at least it’s a start!

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Feb 8, 2014

Hello, Paul. Hope all is well. It's been many years.

I was directly responsible for the maintenance and operation of Metcalf for over six years, ending in 1990. Yes, it is vulnerable. Too much so.

Dr. Wellinghoff's efforts to call attention to the need for physical security enhancement at critical stations across the US is important and timely.

But, this isn't the first time. In the mid-70's, PGandE's Monta Vista substation was bombed. Transformer electrical protective devices were added and enhanced after that experience and that probably saved internal winding failure of all of the involved Metcalf transformers.

Hopefully, instead of looking at slide shows about how all the oil was cleaned up, the industry should instead work on shielding radiators and enhancing oil loss reaction schemes to better protect the expensive assets.

W. Lee McVey

on Feb 9, 2014

Lee
Yep - I remember those old days. We were hit with the aftermath of the Vietnam War activism. Guys like you kept the lights on.

Great to hear from you! Shoot me an email and let me know what's happening with you.
Paul

Lairbear (not verified)
on Feb 10, 2014

It's kind of embarrassing when bulk power, etc. are exposed to the general public.
What's next?
I think some things should not be made public to some degree.
But, freedoms of speech, etc. are front and center.
Freedom of press, is it an argument?
So lets protect what we have been using for years, especially s****. We need to upgrade constantly our security firewalls and virus protection for the system...that's a beginning in order to keep others out.
PGE and others, thanks for all the help with Metcalf.

Lairbear

on Feb 10, 2014

Hi Paul,

It's kind of embarrassing when bulk power, etc. are exposed to the general public. What's next?

I think some things should not be made public to some degree. But, freedom of speech, etc. are front and center. Freedom of press, is it an argument?

So lets protect what we have been using for years, especially s****. We need to upgrade constantly our security firewalls and virus protection for the system...that's a beginning to help keep others out.

PGE and others, thanks for all the help with Metcalf.

Thanks,

Lairbear

on Feb 10, 2014

Hi All,

Thanks for sharing your experience in this regard. This is not isolated to a particular country but happens all around the globe.

Now is the time for engineers to think outside the square and do ordinary things that leads extraordinary results. The proverbial "you cannot solve today’s problem with the same mindset with which it was created".

Protecting the network by building redundancy, inter-connectivity, into the system is a sound way of ensuring the lights stay on, as eluded to by other authors. Critical assets can have more than one redundancy, i.e. N-1 and even N-2.

Critical assets / substations should be protected and there are various ways of doing so.
“Hiding” the substation - The cost difference between GIS and AIS can be nullified by the saving in land cost due to compactness of GIS, especially in high land-value areas.
The overhead line connection to substations is another easy target. If the entry to substations can be done with underground cables and the transition structures located away from the substation, it not just removes the focus on the substation, but also removes line congestion and being an easy target.

Installing redundancy in the protection system, especially on the power transformers, to ensure major damage does not occur in the event of sabotage.
Enclosing transformers to protect it from gun fire can serve more than one purpose. It can also act as a sound barrier, especially in build-up areas, and as a fire / oil spill barrier, hence reducing separation distance and further reduce the size of land required.

I thank you again for sharing your experiences.

Jan P

on Apr 20, 2014

The most effective defense is more distributed generation, such that impacts of loss are lessened. Whether from natural or man-conceived scenarios. There is plenty of redundancy, based on traditional thinking of single-event scenarios.

GIS, too, is vulnerable if one knows its Achilles' points. AIS buses can be repaired in hours or days at the most. GIS is weeks to months. Plus, what does it do for the oil-filled transformers? Nothing.

Overhead lines and structures may be easy targets, but they're easily repaired, unlike an underground transmission cable riser and terminations. Again, maybe a day for a line or structure, and a week or more for terminations and cable.

Barriers and screening for transformers can affect the forced air flow if not done carefully. Also, any structure has to accommodate transformer or radiator removal and replacement as needed.

Concrete block walls have to have gates. And, gates don't make for good oil dams.

Screening of individual transformers makes more sense than do walls, especially for locations like Metcalf that have high overlooks that would defeat any isolation created by a solid wall.

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