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Attacking Our Power Grid

worker repairs to power station
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By: Jim Geraghty – nationalreview.com – December 27, 2022

On the menu today: I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it appears someone is attacking the electrical power grid of the Seattle area, which comes after a series of similar incidents elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest as well as in Florida. And the FBI never caught the guy who attacked the electrical grid down in North Carolina earlier this month. Shooting up a power substation is apparently the latest fad.

Electric Boogaloo

Picture it: It’s Christmas, you’re about to prepare a big meal for the whole family, and the power goes out — all the lights, the refrigerator, your computer and cellphone charger, the works. That happened this year for a lot of families in the Seattle area, but it wasn’t wind, snow, or bad weather; someone shot up their local power substation.

The initial Pierce County Sheriff’s Department public statement was . . . curious:

Today at 05:26 am we received a call of a burglary to the Tacoma Public Utilities Substation at 22312 46th Ave E.

Deputies arrived on scene and saw there was forced entry into the fenced area. Nothing had been taken from the substation, but the suspect vandalized the equipment causing a power outage in the area.

Deputies were notified of a second burglary to the TPU substation at 8820 224th St E which also had forced entry with damage to the equipment. Nothing was taken from this site either.

At 11:25 we were notified by Puget Sound Energy that they too had a power outage this morning at 02:39 am. Deputies are currently on scene at this facility where the fenced area was broken into and the equipment vandalized.

At this time deputies are conducting the initial investigation. We do not have any suspects in custody. It is unknown if there are any motives or if this was a coordinated attack on the power systems.

In total, three sites were vandalized, two TPU and one PSE, with more than 14,000 customers effected.

Really? They weren’t sure if three separate site invasions where equipment was vandalized and broken in a matter of hours might be a coordinated attack? It’s Christmas morning: Most other people have places to be and things to do at that time!

That night, the department issued a second police report:

At 7:21 pm, on December 25th, 2022, dispatchers received a call of a fire at the Puget Sound Energy substation at 14320 Kapowsin Hwy E. Deputies, Firefighters and Puget Sound Energy employees responded to the scene. The fire was extinguished and the substation secured. Power was knocked out for homes in Kapowsin and Graham. The suspect(s) gained access to the fenced area and vandalized the equipment which caused the fire. There are no suspects in custody at this time.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because earlier this month, someone still at large attacked power stations in North Carolina, knocking out power for tens of thousands of people. This, dear readers, is not-so-accurately labeled “vandalism” and is more accurately labeled “terrorism,” and the FBI is investigating.

Because we live in a politically charged era, the FBI is investigating two potential motives, according to CNN.

Investigators — who have found nearly two dozen shell casings from a high-powered rifle — are zeroing in on two threads of possible motives centered on extremist behavior for the weekend assault on two North Carolina electric substations, according to law-enforcement sources briefed on the investigation.

One thread involves the writings by extremists on online forums encouraging attacks on critical infrastructure. The second thread looks at a series of recent disruptions of LGBTQ+ events across the nation by domestic extremists.

The FBI and the NC State Bureau are assisting in the investigation. Investigators have no evidence connecting the North Carolina attacks to a drag event at the theater in the same county, but the timing of two events are being considered in context with the growing tensions and armed confrontations around similar LBGTQ+ events across the country, the sources told CNN.

Sheriff Ronnie Fields has said that whoever fired at the substations “knew exactly what they were doing.” No group “has stepped up to acknowledge or accept they’re the ones who [did] it,” the sheriff said on Sunday.

But what really ought to make us sit up and take notice is how Seattle and North Carolina are just two of the most high-profile incidents of this kind of attack, which appears to be growing more frequent. Before the North Carolina attacks garnered national attention, someone launched a series of attacks elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest:

The electrical grid has been physically attacked at least six times in Oregon and Western Washington since mid-November, causing growing alarm for law enforcement as well as utilities responsible for parts of the region’s critical infrastructure.

According to information obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting and KUOW Public Radio, at least two of the incidents bear similarities to the attacks on substations in North Carolina on Saturday that left thousands of people without electricity for days.

Portland General Electric, the Bonneville Power Administration, Cowlitz County Public Utility District and Puget Sound Energy have confirmed a total of six separate attacks on electrical substations they manage in Oregon and Washington. Attackers used firearms in at least some of the incidents in both states, and some power customers in Oregon and Washington experienced at least brief service disruption as a result of the attacks.

. . .

Two people cut through the fence surrounding a high-voltage substation, then “used firearms to shoot up and disable numerous pieces of equipment and cause significant damage,” the security specialist wrote.

The memo also referenced “several attacks on various substations,” recently, in Western Washington, “including setting the control houses on fire, forced entry and sabotage of intricate electrical control systems, causing short circuits by tossing chains across the overhead buswork, and ballistic attack with small caliber firearms.”

(“Buswork” is a term for the maze of wires and switches that hum overhead at a substation.)

Earlier this fall, an individual or groups started forcing their way into power substations in Florida and attempting to cut the power:

On Sept. 21, an intruder “forced entry” into the Zephyrhills North substation in Pasco County, manually tripping equipment that caused an outage lasting nine minutes, according to a report filed with the U.S. Department of Energy.

One day later, someone “forced entry” at Duke’s East Clearwater substation in Pinellas County, again manually tripping equipment that caused an outage lasting two minutes.

The two substations are about 50 miles apart and both incidents took place in the early morning hours between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.

Experts say the threats to infrastructure are nothing new but appear to have become more common recently.

“It’s definitely not a new type of threat but I think we’re seeing a level of intent to cause damage that is higher than we’ve probably seen in the past,” said Todd Keil, an associate managing director for security risk management at Kroll, who previously worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Power substations are particularly hard to protect, as they’re often isolated in the middle of nowhere and usually unmanned.

Politico examined the federal records on attacks on power stations, substations, and related equipment and determined assaults “are at their highest level since at least 2012, including 101 reported this year through the end of August. . . . The previous peak was the 97 incidents recorded for all of 2021.”

(You may also recall the power going out in parts of Tennessee on Christmas 2020, after a bomber blew himself up, because he was concerned about lizard people. His bomb detonated in front of an AT&T hub, and crippled cellular, internet, and cable service across several states.)

Reacting to the attacks on power substations in Washington, Steve Hayward at the, er, ironically named blog Power Line concludes, “This starts to sound like possible eco-terrorism. After all, throwing paint at artworks in museums, and gluing yourself to the wall, doesn’t stop greenhouse gas emissions. Blowing of the electricity grid just might.”

These attacks could be the work of eco-terrorists, but it’s fair to wonder if the average green extremist would know which systems to shoot up in order to disrupt the power transmission. Then again, I suppose you can learn just about anything from the internet these days.

It’s worth keeping in mind that in February, three men in Ohio pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, as part of a plot to attack the U.S. power grid in furtherance of white-supremacist ideology. According to the Department of Justice, “as part of the conspiracy, each defendant was assigned a substation in a different region of the United States. The plan was to attack the substations, or power grids, with powerful rifles. The defendants believed their plan would cost the government millions of dollars and cause unrest for Americans in the region. They had conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause war, even a race war, and induce the next Great Depression.”

Just because it may seem like the Justice Department reflexively blames white nationalists and violent anti-government extremists for acts of terrorism doesn’t mean that white nationalists and violent anti-government extremists don’t exist, or that they don’t aim to harm as many people as possible.

Attribute it to whatever you like — the Die Hard obsession, the need for inspiration for the novels — but I’ve always liked looking at unsolved mysteries, particularly terrorist attacks with no plausible claims of responsibility and no named suspects, that often fade from the public’s collective memory. One of the odder ones occurred in April 2013 at a Pacific Gas and Electric’s substation in Metcalf, Calif. The perpetrator began by slipping into an underground vault not far from a busy freeway and cutting telephone cables. Then, “within half an hour, snipers opened fire on a nearby electrical substation. Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley. A minute before a police car arrived, the shooters disappeared into the night.”

“This wasn’t an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation,” Mark Johnson, retired vice president of transmission for PG&E, told a utility-security conference, according to a video of his presentation, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. “This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.”

Nearly two years later, Caitlin Durkovich, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security, said at an energy conference, “While we have not yet identified the shooter, there’s some indication it was an insider.” I notice the early accounts of the attack by the authorities used the pronoun “they,” and references to “snipers,” indicating they believed more than one person was involved in the attack.

I suppose the energy industry has disgruntled employees as much as the next industry, but this seems like a particularly elaborate and ambitious plan for revenge. It’s also worth remembering that the exact same substation in California was robbed a year later, which shouldn’t fill us with confidence about the physical security around these sites.

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Source: Power Grid Attacks: Who’s Attacking Our Power Grid? | National Review

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