February 8, 2014

Snipers knocked out 17 giant transformers in 19 minutes at Metcalf substation then disappeared into the night

No one made much of this last year, but Rebecca Smith of the Wall Street Journal put the story together through interviews, PG&E filings, documents and a police video.

Assault on California Power Station Raises Alarm on Potential for Terrorism
April Sniper Attack Knocked Out Metcalf Substation, Raises Concern for Country's Power Grid

SAN JOSE, Calif.—The attack began just before 1 a.m. on April 16 last year, when someone slipped into an underground vault not far from a busy freeway and cut telephone cables.

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.

To avoid a blackout, electric-grid officials rerouted power around the site and asked power plants in Silicon Valley to produce more electricity. But it took utility workers 27 days to make repairs and bring the substation back to life.
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The attack was "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred" in the U.S., said Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time….Mr. Wellinghoff said a FERC analysis found that if a surprisingly small number of U.S. substations were knocked out at once, that could destabilize the system enough to cause a blackout that could encompass most of the U.S……

"What keeps me awake at night is a physical attack that could take down the grid," he said. "This is a huge problem."

Peggy Noonan wrote America's Power Is Under Threat.  The Metcalf incident is a reminder of our greatest vulnerability.

Welcome to my obsession. It is electricity. It makes everything run—the phone, the web, the TV, the radio, all the ways we talk to each other and receive information. The tools and lights in the operating room—electricity. All our computers in a nation run by them, all our defense structures, installations and communications. The pumps at the gas station, the factories in the food-supply chain, the ATM, the device on which you stream your music—all electricity. The premature infant's ventilator and the sound system at the rock concert—all our essentials and most of our diversions are dependent in some way on this: You plug the device into the wall and it gets electrical power and this makes your life, and the nation's life, work. Without it, darkness descends.
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No one who wishes America ill has to blow up a bomb. …..  if you're clever and you really wanted to half-kill America—to knock it out for a few months or longer and force every one of our material and cultural weaknesses to a crisis stage—you'd take out its electrical grid. The grid is far-flung, interconnected, interdependent, vulnerable….

Those who worry about the grid mostly worry about hackers, and understandably: The grid is under regular hack attack. But the more immediate and larger threat may be physical attacks. In any case, as Ms. Smith suggests, the Metcalf incident appears to lift the discussion beyond the hypothetical.
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You always want to think your government is on it. You want to think they see what you see. But really, they're never on it. They always have to be pushed.
Posted by Jill Fallon at February 8, 2014 11:03 AM | Permalink