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Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon pushes for tougher security measures for the nation's electricity grid
By Pat Caldwell
Even now the assailants who conducted a nighttime raid on an electrical substation near San Jose, Calif., last year remain anonymous.
But the assault that nearly produced a massive power outage in the Silicon Valley triggered a number of troubling questions and eventually caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.
The unsolved attack kindled fears regarding the safety of the nation’s power grid.
The assault on the Metcalf substation began under cover of the night in April 2013 when telephone cables were slashed and then individuals began to fire guns into the facility. The saboteurs severely damaged more than 15 transformers that channel power to the Silicon Valley, and then disappeared into the darkness just before police arrived.
The attack forced officials to switch power from the attack site — managed by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, or PG&E — and repairs to the substation took more than three weeks.
A power substation converts voltage — from high to low — and usually consists of large, expensive transformers to change the voltage levels. Substations are a critical element to the greater, complex power grid.
Fears about the vulnerability of the power grid are not new. A 2012 report by the National Research Council said the nation’s electric power grid was vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could produce damage on the level of a natural disaster such as a severe hurricane.
The method of the attack on the Metcalf substation raised persistent enough doubts to motivate four prominent U.S. senators — Wyden, along with fellow Democrats Harry Reid of Nevada, Dianne Feinstein of California and Al Franken of Minnesota — to ask two federal agencies to investigate the safety of nation’s power grid.
In a February letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) the senators asked the agencies to verify whether stronger standards were necessary to guarantee the security of the grid.
“. . . We are concerned that voluntary measures may not be sufficient to constitute a reasonable response to the risk of physical attack on the electricity system . . .” the senators wrote.
FERC controls the interstate transmission of electric, natural gas and oil. However the agency does not regulate retail electricity and natural gas sales to consumers.
NERC, meanwhile, oversees and has some enforcement authority over the regulation of the North American electrical grid.
FERC responded quickly to the senators’ letter.
On March 7 the agency announced that it had directed NERC to develop reliability standards that require owners and operators of the nation’s bulk-power system to address possible physical threats to the grid.
The reliability standards mandate owners and operators of the bulk-power system to institute at least three measures to protect the physical security of the system. The steps included a mandate that owners and operators of bulk-power systems perform a risk-assessment; an evaluation of potential threats and vulnerabilities and the development and implementation of a security plan.
NERC now has 90 days to develop the proposals further and then submit them to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
All four senators lauded the fast action of FERC and called the proposed reliability standards an “important first step to guard against attacks like the one that nearly knocked out a California substation last year” in a March joint letter.
Closer to home, the safety of the power grid is a top priority for the two companies that supply power to Baker County residents: Idaho Power and Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative (OTEC).
OTEC spokesman Jim Horan said key power facilities are fenced and monitored closely.
“In a real day-to-day aspect, obviously we have fences and cameras and that is a big deterrent for us,” Horan said. “It is something we are absolutely watching. We are also always trying to figure out what the risks are and what other things that can be done to protect the system.”
Horan said there has not been an attack on the scale of the Metcalf substation on any OTEC installations.
“We have had people throw garbage over the fence (of a facility) and we’ve ended up reporting those people and because of cameras we’ve been able to track license plates,” he said.
Horan conceded the power grid safety issue is a complex one.
“I think at the end of the day we are all trying to figure out what more we can do,” he said.
Horan said many of OTEC’s facilities are in remote areas and the electrical system is geared with failsafe mechanisms to lessen the probability of a major blackout.
“We have also designed the system, that if we lost a substation, we could provide power from another substation around it. The system is designed to do that,” he said.
Idaho Power spokesperson Lynette Berriochoa said the Boise company, which supplies power to parts of eastern and southern Baker County, also takes the safety of its system seriously.
“We do have some pretty stringent standards set in place to protect our critical infrastructure,” Berriochoa said.
Berriochoa said the electrical industry conducts exercises and shares information in an effort to be prepared.
“We participated in a drill last November. It was a two-day exercise people participated in from all across the country and into Canada. It was an exercise that looked at both cyber and physical security threats,” she said.
While Berriochoa said safety standards are important, in the end the modern-era produces an array threats.
“We have to also understand that threats are more dynamic. People are coming up with different ways all the time to create havoc,” she said.
Berriochoa said Idaho Power features a host of different and stout security measures.
“We take it (safety of the power grid) very seriously. We are staffed to address that strategically. We ensure reliability standards we do have our met and we always look ahead to protect critical assets. We want to ensure the security of the grid overall. We feel good about the security measures we have in place, we are confident in them,” she said.
Horan said a major power outage — where electricity is cut off over a large area for days — is not likely in Eastern Oregon.
“You’d have to have multiple major transmission substations that would go down. The possibility of that happening would be something on the scale of the tsunami in Japan,” he said. “It would be pretty hard for our system to go down unless we lost it from multiple different angles.”