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Tech by VICE

How to Sniper-Proof the Grid

Snipers tried to bring on a blackout by taking down a power plant in California last year; here's how to fight back.

by Brian Merchant
Feb 5 2014, 10:40pm
Image: Luhai Wong/Wikimedia

For years, lawmakers and critics have warned that our aging electrical grid is vulnerable not just to natural disasters, but to physical attack. 

“Our enemies have the motive, the means, and the capacity to attack our grid with potentially catastrophic consequences,” Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) told Bloomberg last year. “The question is whether the utilities have the same determination to protect our country against these threats.”

A newly revealed incident is evidence they don't—or even the wherewithal to keep the public informed about said threats. The Wall Street Journal reports that nearly a year ago, snipers attacked a power plant operated by PG&E and nearly caused a blackout in parts of California. First, someone cut telephone cables in an underground vault. The Journal describes what happened next: "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."

None of the shooters have been caught. Officials were able to keep the lights on by routing power around the station, but the man who was serving as the chairmen of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, Jon Wellinghoff, is so concerned that another attack is immanent that he went public about the breach.

Wellinghoff called it "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred." He says that if the attack were copied, and carried out to scale, it could knock out the grid "and black out much of the country."

The problem, as he sees it, is that there are 2,000 such substations across the country, and if only a handful of them were knocked out at once, he believes widespread outages would follow.

Naturally, Wellinghoff feels that security is inadequate, and is pushing for more protection at transformer sites. It's a familiar call to action that's been sounded in response to the rising specter of a number of grid-threatening events—hacker intrusions, downed power lines during a weather disaster, terrorist attacks aimed directly at power plants, even that mostly laughable EMP scenario—but this time with real life action at its core. 

To a certain extent, Wellinghoff has a point; our grid is old, vulnerable, and relatively insecure. Yet it's always worth being critical of grid scare-mongering, which inevitably beckons images of a pitch black society where civility erodes and oh god the militias. Hackers haven't been able to do much damage to power plants yet (at least, not intentionally), though hurricanes and snowstorms have. Currently, the real threats are physical ones, and a terrorist attack, however unlikely, is admittedly a greater risk than a hacked one. But to ward off such a threat, we don't need to install Navy Seals at every power station in the country. We just need some solar power, and to smarten up the grid. 

Right now, most of our power comes from massive, centralized power plants; hulking coal-fired behemoths and nuclear stations that pipe power out to millions of consumers that are often dozens, if not hundreds, of miles away. Blowing out the right transformers en route could stymie the flow and bring on a blackout.

Installing more small-scale power like community and rooftop solar, for instance, helps to decentralize the grid and make consumers and communities less reliant on the frail, hypothetically-crosshaired grid. This kind of consumer solar is booming California, somewhat ironically in the region where the power plant assault took place. It also has the bonus, of course, of providing low or zero-emissions energy and democratizing energy production—it's a lot harder to knock out hundreds of community and individual installations to provoke chaos than it is a single generation plant or substation.

It'd also be a good idea to embrace the smart grid technology that's been a staple of politico-speak for the last six or seven years—a series of sensors that can detect outages (as well as regional supply and demand) and redirect power flow accordingly. Smart grids require an expensive up front investment, even if the power savings will pay them off, so their rollout has proven slow and unwieldy. 

Still, the power plant attack is another reminder that our grid is far too vulnerable to the elements, be they human or otherwise—and it's probably time to sniper-proof as well as weather-proof the whole mess.

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