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After NC substation attack, lawmaker ‘not sure the FBI is taking this very seriously’

When more than 40,000 customers lost power in Moore County on Dec. 3, 2022, officials initially didn’t know what had happened, Rep. Richard Hudson said.

But as Duke Energy officials surveyed the damage to the infrastructure at their local substation, it became evident that an expert shooter had intentionally cut power to the area.

Hudson called that terrifying, because he realized that the community wasn’t dealing with a drunken local blowing off steam, but someone who planned to cause chaos in the area.

The attacks pulled power and, for many, heat from 45,000 Duke Energy customers during a winter cold spell, leading to the death of one resident who needed oxygen to survive. Whoever did it remains at large.

Hudson, a Republican representing Moore and nearby counties, has toured a substation, held congressional meetings and proposed legislation in an attempt to prevent another community from being crippled by an attack.

Hudson sat down with McClatchy to talk about what he’s learned, what he’s done and what actions the federal government still needs to take.

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields released a statement saying his staff and the FBI have conducted “hundreds” of interviews and pursued “hundreds” of leads. But Hudson said he’s not convinced the FBI is doing all it could be.

Parts of the interview have been edited for length and clarity.

The Moore County attack

Question: Can you describe what it was like for you to hear about the shooting?

Answer: I wasn’t in Moore County at the time, and we weren’t sure what had happened. We knew that our citizens were without power, which creates a lot of concerns for more vulnerable populations, people that rely on electricity for oxygen and other things. It was cold. It was December, so I worried about that. You immediately worry about the hospital. We found that the hospital had a generator backup system, so they were OK. But all those things you’re concerned about: the suffering and the danger to our residents.

Elowyn Hoelscher, 7, stands in line at a food truck with her mother, Erika Hoelscher, at Red’s Corner during the Moore County power outage on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Southern Pines, N.C.
Elowyn Hoelscher, 7, stands in line at a food truck with her mother, Erika Hoelscher, at Red’s Corner during the Moore County power outage on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Southern Pines, N.C.

Then you start asking what happened and why and how could something like this happen?

And then the third thought is: what’s it going to take to get the power back on and what can we do to support Duke Energy? I was really proud of the response from Duke Energy. Their employees worked day and night, in the cold, in the dark, to try to get this thing repaired and get the power back on. We’re really proud of our sheriff and local law enforcement. I thought they did a tremendous job — very quickly moved into action.

Then in the days that followed, seeing our community come together and take care of each other. All the churches, coming together to feed people and offer showers. Local libraries offered for people to come in and charge their phones. Local businesses provide food and water and things that people needed. That was very heartwarming to see the community come together and take care of each other.

Q: Did you hear from constituents about how much it affected them in their day-to-day lives?

A: Absolutely. It was people suffering from the cold. People that had health issues and needed electricity to power their devices. People who were alone. People that needed access to food. We heard from a lot of constituents and we heard from businesses — it was devastating for businesses, too, to have to shut down for a week. Our grocery stores had to keep the food from spoiling — restaurants. This was devastating. We were working very closely with our community but also with the state emergency management; our local governments. Everyone jumped into action.

Q: Can you describe your visit to the power substation?

A: In the days that followed, I went down and was able to walk the site with the head of security for Duke Energy. It was immediately clear to me that this was a very sophisticated, very well-planned attack. This was not some random — someone drank too much, and went and shot up something — this was very well planned and executed. And that was terrifying to me because you kind of wish that it was maybe someone blowing off steam — but the precision of the attack — the person was an excellent shot. The marksmanship was evident. The tour, to me, made it very clear that this wasn’t just some random act.

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, center, was one of nine members of the House Committee on Energy Commerce who attended a field hearing on the country’s power grid security at Pinehurst Village Hall in June.
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, center, was one of nine members of the House Committee on Energy Commerce who attended a field hearing on the country’s power grid security at Pinehurst Village Hall in June.

The FBI investigation

Q: Are we any closer to catching the person who did it?

A: We’re not, and that’s one of my frustrations. I’m not sure the FBI is taking this very seriously. I had a classified briefing from the FBI a few months back and I was very unsatisfied with what I heard from them.

We’re working to have another classified briefing for my full committee, so they can ask questions also, and frankly, to give the FBI another chance to tell us what they’re doing. I believe they’re not taking this very seriously and this is not a priority. Not only our particular incident, but there were 18 incidents last year around the country and none of them have, in my opinion, been investigated fully.

Q: That seems incredibly concerning.

A: Yes. I’m doing what I can do by continuing to ask for information and ask for updates on the investigation. But it is very concerning. Again, I think the sheriff has done a tremendous job and done everything he could possibly do, but I questioned whether the FBI is really committed to this.

Q: Do we have any knowledge of whether this was a local that committed the crime, or whether it was planned out and executed by somebody from further away?

A: I don’t think we know. And when I asked those questions of the FBI, I was not satisfied with the answers. I asked a lot of specific questions about who this could be, what their motivations could be and every answer was, we don’t have any evidence to indicate that.

Q: I know initially, there were rumors that this was a hate crime against the LGBTQ community. Have we seen any information to substantiate those claims?

A: Nothing. I’m not a law enforcement expert, but I would assume if that were the case, there would be some indication of that. There would be some kind of message of that. There would be some kind of claiming credit or delivering some kind of political message in relation to this. I haven’t seen anything that would indicate that.

Q: Do you think it wasn’t, then?

A: Well, I know it wasn’t someone who committed a rash act in the spur of the moment. This was a planned-out, efficiently coordinated, expert-marksman incident. This was not just some spur-of-the-moment, rash act.

Patrons dine by candelight at Red’s Corner during the Moore County power outage on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Southern Pines, N.C.
Patrons dine by candelight at Red’s Corner during the Moore County power outage on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Southern Pines, N.C.

Lessons learned from the power station attack

Q: What have you learned in the past year from the shooting?

A: We’ve learned a lot, and what we learned in the immediate aftermath was that we had incredible vulnerabilities in our energy grid, and that Congress needs to address it.

I’ve said all along that we need to do four things:

  • We need to harden our infrastructure.

  • We need to improve our grid resilience.

  • We have got to strengthen our supply chains.

  • We’ve got to increase penalties for people that attack our substations and our energy infrastructure.

We’ve been working toward all those goals.

The first thing I did was listen: listen to constituents, community leaders, business owners, our sheriff, Duke Energy, the state — all the different partners to learn as much as I could about what happened in this particular attack in Moore County, but also what are the challenges to our grid resiliency, to our infrastructure and what are the vulnerabilities to a more coordinated larger attack.

This was devastating for our community ... but imagine a coordinated attack that impacted multiple communities or multiple states. What are the implications of that?

I, then, got a classified briefing from the FBI on their investigation. I pushed our committee to work on investigating this vulnerability on the entire grid. We’ve had numerous hearings. We had a field hearing that I brought to Moore County. We’ve had multiple hearings in the Oversight and Energy subcommittees. And in the midst of all this, looking at the supply chain problems.

One of the reasons this was so devastating was because there aren’t parts lying around or easily accessible to repair these substations. And we’ve got a very old transformer network. And in the midst of all this, the Biden administration is coming out with a new rule that’s going to make it harder to access transformers. And so I’ve got legislation that’s made it through the subcommittee. We’re hoping to get a full committee hearing next month, and then get it to the House floor — hopefully this year — that stops, for five years at least, changing the requirements on transformers.

There’s only two companies in America now that make these and this regulation would at least wipe out one of them. So we’ve learned a lot and we’re continuing to work on this.

I was able to get $1.6 billion in funding to bolster grid security in the energy and water appropriations bill. We continue to try to push for a more resilient energy production in America. That’s an issue that, I think Republicans in Congress, and Democrats in the administration are a little bit at loggerheads over. But I think that complicates the problem when we don’t take advantage of the abundant energy supply here in America. So there’s a lot that we’ve learned and it’s a very complicated set of problems, but we’re continuing to move forward and work on it.

Q: You have said in one of the congressional hearings that you want to ensure that appropriate information is being shared to prevent future attacks. Can you go into how you’re working on that?

A: That’s something we’re continuing to work on. It’s going to take time — it’s complicated. That’s at the top of my list of things to talk about with the FBI the next time we have them come present to us.

Witnesses took questions from U.S. House Committee on Energy Commerce members during the June field hearing at Pinehurst Village Hall. They included, from left, Mark Aysta, managing director of enterprise security at Duke Energy; William Ray, director of North Carolina Emergency Management; Tim Ponseti with the SERC Reliability Corporation; and N.C. State University’s Jordan Kern, an industrial engineering professor.

But part of that is federal information sharing with local law enforcement. It’s the power companies sharing that information with each other, and how does that work? Does that have to go through Homeland Security? Do we have a process in place that is adequate to share information like that now, or does Congress need to create some new authorities so that that can happen?

But my read of this was that there were 18 instances of this last year. Are there connections? Are there lessons learned that can be shared across the country among the private sector? There’s certainly lessons learned, I think that the government can learn, and how that information is shared. So that’s kind of a top-of-mind piece of all of this. It’s not, we just check a box, but it’s part of the solution going forward.

Q: Do you think we’re more or less vulnerable to an attack a year later?

A: I think we’re less vulnerable, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. I think there’s a lot of work that we still need to do, because a lot of these are long-term problems like hardening infrastructure. There’s steps that have been taken — the money I was able to secure for next year will be implemented, that will help — but this is going to be an ongoing problem that needs to be continued to be addressed.

The grid resilience is a tough, long-term problem. How do we make sure we’ve got multiple sources coming into areas? Our county has one source of power, so how do you make sure you’ve got multiple sources? How do you make sure you’ve got replacement parts on hand?

Duke Energy’s West End substation is one of two stations in Moore County that were attacked in December 2022 leaving 45,000 customers without power and exposing a major vulnerability in the nation’s power grid.
Duke Energy’s West End substation is one of two stations in Moore County that were attacked in December 2022 leaving 45,000 customers without power and exposing a major vulnerability in the nation’s power grid.

In the case of Moore County, they had to take radiators off of an operating transformer somewhere else and ship it. So they basically had to cannibalize another transformer to get ours back up and running. So how do we ensure that we’ve got better accessibility to parts? Imagine if it had been four transformers instead of two that were taken down. Or 12.

How long would it have taken to get parts for that? And so that’s a question: If you can’t just have a federal mandate that requires all of our providers to stockpile parts, because then that cost is going to be passed along to ratepayers. And so is there a federal government role in this? And what’s the appropriate amount? Those are the questions we’re still kind of working through.

The resilience issue is a larger issue. And it’s also what I mentioned before about making sure we’re accessing all American sources of energy, so that our energy is abundant and cheap and we have the ability to build in more resilience.

And then the supply chain. It kind of overlaps with this but making sure that we have incentive for domestic manufacturing of transformers but also all the parts. What can we do to incentivize the marketplace in America and what are the barriers now that exist that have caused people to stop doing this in America?

So those are large, long-term questions that we’re wrestling with now.

As far as the penalties, our state legislative delegation ... have done a really good job in strengthening the penalties. The penalties were a misdemeanor and now it’s a high-grade felony to attempt to damage an energy facility or associated infrastructure. That was a big step for a deterrent but also to give prosecutors more incentive to go after folks.

Q: Are we vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks on the grid too?

A: We are, but that’s something that Congress has been working on. We’ve made great strides. We’re less vulnerable.

That’s something our adversaries challenge every single day, and we’ve gotten pretty good at defending that. But it’s an ongoing challenge.