Power transmission lines

Last April’s shooting attack on a PG&E substation in San Jose was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred,” according to former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff. We talk with Wellinghoff and other experts about that incident, and about the security of the nation’s electrical grid.

Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and partner at the law firm Stoel Rives LLP
Rebecca Smith, staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal
Jim Fama, vice president of energy delivery for the Edison Electric Institute, the association that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies

  • Guest

    Follow the money. People should be asking, is there any corporation that stands to benefit from further paranoia about tewworism? Yes, there are hundreds if not thousands. Then ask, do any of those corporations have access to trained soldiers or others who have such weapons as were used, who could have perpetrated the vandalism that is being hyped as tewworism? Yes, there are tens if not hundreds. For instance, Blackwater (“XE”). Then ask, are any of these corporations unfettered by ideas about morality or standards of ethical conduct such that they would willingly perpetrate such an attack? Probably 50% would not think twice about it.

    Therefore this was very likely a false-flag attack, meant to increase profits for the “security theater” industry. The question I have is, were the fools who carried it out paid handsome sums, or as you see in movies, deemed expendable?

    Wikipedia: false flag

  • Bob Fry

    All the more reason to accelerate a shift to de-centralized, roof-mounted photovoltaic panels. But instead, no doubt we’ll spend billions on “security” for existing centralized facilities.

  • thucy

    Wasn’t “the most significant act of domestic terrorism” in the Bay Area supposed to be when teenaged Max Wade rapelled down from the toof of the Ferrari dealership to steal Guy Fieri’s Lamborghini? Just kidding, but not everything is a “false flag” attack (as listener Frank has suggested) perpetrated by highly-trained Blackstone mercenaries. What about drug-addled white teenaged males with access to guns out for a very violent “prank” – which seems to characterize at least one common form of domestic terrorism: school shootings?

  • Robert Thomas

    The Metcalf substation incident was disturbing and alarming.

    However, when people who are not working power system engineers begin making what appear to be technical assertions about a particular incident, I’m uneasy. I’m not a power distribution engineer. But I have been an electrical engineer for thirty-five years and whenever I hear the phrase “the grid” tossed around, my experience is that nonsense often follows.

    Ms. Smith tells us that this subject is all she’s written about for fifteen years and I’m sure her opinions are well-informed. Is there a working power distribution engineer available to comment?

    • Robert Thomas

      Thanks, Dr. Krasny for reading my question, for which the answer was “No.”

      I think Ms. Smith DOES know a lot about this incident – more than I do.

      However, in an earlier interview on a different radio program, I heard her say (as best I can recall) that there was an hour and a half delay before technical power personnel arrived at the Metcalf site, and that this was alarming. I didn’t understand why she said this. Though the damage was severe, in the event, power system rerouting succeeded in connecting the load via Newark substation and perhaps (I don’t know) through part of Metcalf not taken offline (Metcalf’s line side is supplied by a 500kV connection to the Moss Landing loop and a 500kV connection to the western states grid). The damage took several weeks to repair. Quicker response time from technical staff may be desirable, but I don’t think it was critical in this case. Security response may well have been quicker, but that’s not the same thing.

      Whether elements of the power distribution system should be “hardened” further against violent attack is a legitimate question but I doubt that any scenario would include the employment of technical staff in intercession with violent malefactors.

  • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

    Can’t miss this opportunity to encourage utilities to underground urban and rural electric, telephone, cable, and fiber-optic lines wherever and whenever possible, as soon as possible.

    Undergrounding wires that “cut the sky” is such a win-win in terms of security and aesthetics; an integration of safety with day-to-day happiness.

    And let’s not forget the threat of strange and violent weather incidents in this regard.

  • Greg D

    1. The attacker knew about both the structure of the substation and the telecom connections to the substation. 2. Many public citizens have “assault rifles”. Q: Who is to say that this wasn’t the work of a disgruntled employee or ex-employee?

    • Guest

      Who’s to say the energy company didn’t hire a mercenary to do it?
      Notice how the one guy kept saying “we didn’t want it entirely destroyed”. Very suspicious.

    • Bob Fry

      Or the work of insiders who were fed-up with inaction by both private and government, and wanted to spur action.

    • Bill_Woods

      I think you misspoke. Lots of people have (scare quotes) “assault weapons”, but very few have genuine assault rifles, such as the AK-47.

      • Greg D

        It didn’t take a genuine assault rifle to do what was done at the Metcalf Station. A semi-automatic would do the job, or even a single-shot rifle. That’s why i used scary quotes.

  • Bob Fry

    Oh ho! Before it was “PG&E has a profit motive to service its customers”, now, “expenses of security measures should be paid by all taxpayers”. Haven’t we heard that many times before?

  • olive

    Is there any significance to a silicon valley-located power station? Should we be thinking about the message attackers sent by targeting a high tech area?

  • Greg D

    Smartmeters allow utilities to detect situations in the distribution grid quickly. Without Smartmeters power companies rely on phone calls from customers to alert them to problems. Smartmeters make the distribution grid _more_ reliable.

  • cooper29

    While the damage to the Metcalf high voltage station was unfortunate, it was repaired in a couple of months. The real risk to our WAY of LIFE is the vulnerability of the Extremely High Voltage (EHV) transformers to Geomagnetic Disturbances (GMD aka solar flares, coronal mass ejections).

    For a detailed explanation search for Matthew Stein’s article entitled “400 Chernobyls Solar Flares, EMP, and Nuclear Armageddon”. What follows below is a summary of his article.

    Under the auspices of the EMP Commission and FEMA, Metatech corporation was commissioned to model and analyze the effects of an extreme Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) event on the US power grid. Using the geomagnetic storm of 1921 as the basis of their model, they concluded that over 350 EHV transformers in the US would be damaged or destroyed and possibly over 2000 EHV transformers worldwide.

    EHV transformers are custom made for each installation, can weigh over 300 tons each, and can cost of excess of $1 million dollars each. Currently it takes 1-3 years lead time to get one EHV transformer and the total world manufacturing capacity is around 100 EHV transformers per year and that is with everything working.

    These GMDs are infrequent events but like earthquakes on the west coast it is just a matter of WHEN the next one will occur. When it does, much of the US grid will go down, not for days, but for months in some areas and even years in others. Since nuclear power plants cannot use generated electricity to run their cooling pumps, they will shut down and use backup generators to supply the electricity to run the cooling pumps. Given that most nuclear power plants only have a weeks supply of fuel to run the generators, the reactors will eventually all go into melt down and the cooling pools for spent fuel rods will boil dry. So, not only will we be thrust back into living like our forefathers in the early 1800s, our air and soil will be contaminated with radiation for a mellennia. Goodbye humanity and all biological life.

    But it does not have to be this way. The author of the Metatech study estimated that it would cost $1 billion dollars to build protective devices into the US grid that would protect the EHV transformers from extreme GMD events or an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). Our Federal Reserve spends $70 billiion on month on QE3, but they don’t have money for protecting the gird. We spend over $500 billion on defense a year, but there is no money to protect the grid. Our utilities are profitable, but they don’t have any money to protect the grid. Why? Because there is no money in it for the utilities. They would rather spend their money on a “Smart Grid” where they can get a return on their investment.

    The Shield Act, has been proposed in Congress, but it is going nowhere because it does not benefit the corporate interests involved. Write your representatives and demand they do something about it.

  • Veterans know, “Every-one want security, peace of mind but, no-one wants to pay for it” . . .

  • Veterans know – “Everyone wants security – peace of mind – yet no-one wants to pay for it.”

  • Robert Dragon

    As a field engineer, I see these installations on a daily basis and their vulnerability. As a former process automation engineer, I see how vulnerable a cyber attack could be – fortunately preventative steps have been rushed into place. Safegaurds beyond redundancy should become commonplace in the near future.

  • Just for the sake of history, I remember a similar incident in 1976 in Seattle. Just thought I’d do a Google search to see what comes up. Here, among several listings, is a news clipping about that substation assault. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19760102&id=3KYSAAAAIBAJ&sjid=y_gDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6732,455774

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