Power Grid: Target in 'New Attack on America'?

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SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. -- Electricity could be considered the nervous system of our country. It provides light, runs all types of devices, and helps power the economy.

If America's power grid went down, the results could be catastrophic.

How secure is our grid, and is it a target for terrorists?

Military-Style Incident

With its maze of electric equipment, the Metcalf Transmission Substation quietly took up space in California's Santa Clara County. On April 16 last year, that all changed.

Surveillance video shows the muzzle flash of rifles and sparks from bullets striking the chain-link fence around the substation. For nearly 20 minutes, snipers unloaded, then vanished before police arrived.

Even the shell casings left behind, the kind ejected by AK-47s, carried no fingerprints.

Authorities later discovered the military-style attack blasted 17 giant transformers and six circuit breakers, resulting in more than $15 million in damage.

Those transformers send power to an area that heavily relies on it -- the Silicon Valley.

Former FBI agent Rick Smith, who was a part of the anti-terrorism unit, said the message is clear.

"Obviously, it wasn't just a couple of guys out having a beer," Smith said. "It was some orchestrated attack that was planned, and it looked somewhat professional. If you don't have any power, you obviously have disruption, and the message is that our facilities were vulnerable."

America's Soft Underbelly

Fortunately, in the Metcalf case, electric grid officials rerouted power to prevent a blackout.

Still, that did not stop Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, from telling the Wall Street Journal the attack was "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred" in the United States.

That statement unleashed a firestorm from lawmakers and security experts wondering about the vulnerability of the American power grid in the event of a physical attack and EMP, or electromagnetic pulse attack.

"That's where you would basically wipe out our electric grid and any instruments that use computer chips," Kevin Freeman, a security expert and author, told CBN News.

California Assemblyman Jim Patterson, vice chair of the Utilities and Commerce Committee, agreed with Wellinghoff.

"What keeps me awake at night and a lot of the people who produce and distribute power in California is this whole question about whether this was isolated or whether we need to see this as the beginning of a new security risk," Patterson told CBN News.

"The big picture is, though, that this is an indication of the soft targets and the variety of targets in this new attack on America," he said.

Precursor to an 'Act of War?'

Rich Lordan, with the Electric Power Research Institute, called the attack and its execution unprecedented.

"So the feeling is this may have been preparation for an act of war," Lordan said.

Lordan's colleague at the Institute strongly disagrees.

"I think he was off base for making that sensational kind of remark," Clark Gellings, with the Institute, told CBN News. "I don't understand why he would even say that. We've had quite a conversation since then about this."

Gellings thoughts on the motivation behind the attack, however, don't change his concern for the security of the grid.

"It's an ongoing battle to stay one step ahead of these folks who might want to do us some harm, not just physical harm to the power system, but also the cyber side," he explained.

Flimsy Security

There's a lot of ground to cover in that battle. The U.S. power grid is extensive, and from the East Coast to the West Coast, many substations are located in remote areas with minimum security.

CBN News discovered the same situation in the largest city in the country.

One switchyard that powers the financial district and also much of the New York City subway system is only protected by a flimsy fence and minimum security.

"As horrible as 9/11 was to this nation and to the city, had the terrorists flown two planes into this facility, the consequences to New York City and to the nation would have been orders of magnitude more damaging than what actually happened," Adam Victor, with the TransGas Development Systems, told CBN News.

"I hope we never get to the point where we have to monitor this entire infrastructure, which is literally millions of miles of wire, 150,000 poles, and roughly the same number of substations... Impossible!" Gellings exclaimed.

However, Gellings and other leaders are by no means throwing in the towel. Pacific Gas & Electric, owner of the Metcalf substation, has worked with federal and local agencies and consultants to increase security.

Powering Up Security

Among other things, company leaders plan to put up opaque fencing, advanced camera systems and lighting, and more alarms.

"These are things we've already done -- perform a risk assessment, evaluate the gaps we have, and then implement strategies to fill those gaps," Brian Swanson, a PG&E spokesperson, explained.

One strategy is increasing patrols around substations. As CBN News walked around and shot video of the Metcalf substation, it took about half an hour before we encountered inquisitive deputies with the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department.

"There's a lot more public safety eyes in the areas," Patterson said. "There's a lot more tracking and identifying of potential domestic threat with respect to that kind of chatter."

As far as the hardening of the grid itself, Gellings said the Electric Power Research Institute is literally developing a kevlar vest to put around transformers to protect them.

He said researchers are also working on devices that would sense the vibrations of people and report that movement to provide more awareness of the situation on location.

"Then we want to get overall situational awareness and use... unmanned aerial vehicles to actually look at a whole area of the power system," Gellings added.

The drone idea has been met with reluctance from the Federal Aviation Administration. That's not stopping power industry leaders and others, though, from exploring options to fortify a grid which has shown itself to be quite vulnerable.

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Mark Martin

CBN News Reporter

Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.