The gunshots fired into two Duke Energy power substations in Moore County echoed earlier attacks on similar facilities around the country, most notably one outside San Jose, California, nearly a decade ago.
At least two people armed with rifles opened fire on Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalf substation shortly after midnight on April 16, 2013. A fusillade of more than 100 rounds disabled 17 transformers. The company was able to reroute power and contain the outage but had to spend $15 million on repairs.
There have been other attacks on power substations since, including a series by an Arkansas man later that year. In 2016, someone fired a rifle into a substation in southern Utah, cutting off electricity to 13,000 customers for a day.
But the Metcalf attack remains the touchstone event that highlights the vulnerability of power substations. Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks was asked about the California attack at a press conference Monday.
“We learn from every incident that security is always an evolving process,” Brooks replied. “We take information from our peers; we share information with our trade organizations and government agencies. It’s a collaborative effort to stay ahead of these kinds of challenges. Certainly that event provided learnings for all of the industry and was incorporated into our responses.”
Brooks has declined to discuss security measures at the Moore County substations or what changes might be made after the attacks.
“What I can say is that Duke Energy incorporates multiple layers across its system to monitor and protect critical infrastructure,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned utility companies about such attacks last January. In a widely reported memo first disclosed by The Daily Beast, the agency said that “domestic violent extremists” had “developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020, identifying the electric grid as a particularly attractive target given its interdependency with other infrastructure sectors.”
The following month, three men pleaded guilty in Ohio to federal charges related to a scheme to attack power substations to sow unrest and economic upheaval to further their white supremacy ideology. As part of the conspiracy, each man was assigned a substation in a different region of the country, according to prosecutors.
“The plan was to attack the substations, or power grids, with powerful rifles,” prosecutors wrote. “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.”
Investigators have not discussed possible motives for the attacks in Moore County but have said they were calculated.
“The individual that done the damage knew exactly what they were doing, to cause the damage and cause the outage that they did,” Sheriff Ronnie Fields said at a press conference Monday.
Speaking at the same press conference, Gov. Roy Cooper said it isn’t only Duke Energy and other utility companies who are concerned about protecting the electric grid.
“We need to learn from this incident as to what we may need to do,” Cooper said. “Because these kinds of things cannot happen. We cannot tolerate this type of wide power outage to so many people.”
Tens of thousands still without power
Power substations are the places where the voltage of power from Duke’s transmission lines is reduced before it can be distributed to homes and businesses. Brooks likened the long-distance transmission lines to interstate highways and the substations to exit ramps.
Some power substations are indoors or underground, particularly in crowded cities. But the vast majority are outdoors, protected by fences, cameras and other security measures. The stations can withstand all types of weather, and utilities find it easier to keep them cool and to make repairs and replace equipment if they’re outdoors.
Saturday’s attack initially knocked out power to nearly all the homes and businesses that Duke Energy serves in Moore County, more than 45,000. The company was able to repair and replace some equipment starting Sunday and bring thousands of customers back online.
But as of noon Tuesday, more than 34,000 customers remained without power. Duke Energy says the remaining repairs are complicated and involve large pieces of equipment and that the majority of customers probably won’t have power until late Thursday morning.