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CU chief: Electric system is safe

Utility officials are always on guard against threats to grid

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On Christmas Day, 14,000 customers in Washington state woke to darkened homes after three power substations were targeted for vandalism.

Vandals forced their way into a fenced area containing the substations and damaged equipment, according to reporting by Oregon Public Broadcasting. For most, power was restored the same day.

On Dec. 3, a shooting attack on two electrical substations in North Carolina left 45,000 people without service, The Fayetteville Observer reported. It took five days to restore power using a phased approach.

In the attack, vandals with rifles targeted key pieces of equipment from a perimeter far outside of the substations.

Recent vandalism on either coast may seem far removed from Springfield, Missouri, yet the U.S. Department of Energy has reported an increase in physical attacks of electrical infrastructure across the nation.

In the first eight months of 2022 – the most recent data available – there were 108 instances of trespassing or vandalism, compared with 99 instances in all of 2021 and 97 in 2020.

In January 2022, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis issued a warning targeted toward law enforcement agencies and utility operators. It said that domestic extremists had credible and specific plans to attack the electricity infrastructure.

The U.S. has more than 6,400 power plants and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines spanning the country, according to The Associated Press.

Gary Gibson, general manager and CEO of City Utilities of Springfield, said he takes threats to the infrastructure seriously.

“We monitor where threats are coming from,” he said. “Utilities as a whole pay attention to key pillars of grid security, and overall, our system is very safe.”

Gibson was reluctant to share specific information about how CU protects its infrastructure. Details about measures that are in place could compromise their effectiveness.

“We want our customers to understand and be somewhat comfortable that we have a team of professionals, and security is their job,” he said. “They take it very seriously.”

CU specialists – Gibson declined to say how many – track cybersecurity threats, both foreign and domestic, as well as threats to physical infrastructure. This is also true for its other commodities: water and natural gas, Gibson said.“We have pretty good teams for both cyber and physical security, and they assess stuff all day long,” he said.

No large-scale attacks have taken place with CU infrastructure.

Joel Alexander, CU’s manager of media and energy services, said the utility has had a cybersecurity group for many years.

Redundancy is also built into the system, Gibson said, noting CU has 45 substations, all with multiple feeds. This allows CU to bypass a damaged feed without an interruption of power. Depending on what components are damaged in a potential attack, there could be longer lead times to get the system up and running.

He added that intelligence about threats comes from a number of sources, including the Electric Information Sharing and Analysis Center, part of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. NERC is a nonprofit regulatory authority whose mission is to reduce risks to the grid.

Agencies like NERC and the organization that oversees it, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, share information regularly among operators of the bulk power system, according to NERC’s website.

Never fully secure
Tom Houston is general manager of the Webster Electric Cooperative, one of Missouri’s 40 distribution cooperatives.

Webster Electric oversees 11 substations that serve 22,000 meters. Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative, also based in Marshfield, owns Webster’s substations and about 120 others in southern Missouri. The power is generated by Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., based in Springfield.

Houston, who is on Sho-Me’s board of directors, said all cooperatives served by Sho-Me have advanced security settings, including cameras, trip settings, motion sensors and more.

Even so, Houston said, an attack like the one in North Carolina, which involved a high-powered rifle that can shoot up a station a half mile away, is hard to guard against.

“We’re limited to how much we can do,” he said. “Generating plants have a lot of physical security, like armed guards. You can’t do that at every substation.”

Physical barriers, like concrete blocks or sandbags, can provide some protection to substations, though not from a weapon poised from a higher elevation, Houston said.

He added that about 99% of substations are surrounded by chain-link fences, which allow for airflow to the equipment behind them.

“You cannot plan and prevent and pay for every possibility,” he said. “Nationwide, it takes one idiot – one extremist.”

People in the business community understand this, he said, noting businesses put into place the appropriate safeguards for factors they can control.

“We probably have more regulations and standards than your average industry because of the importance of reliability in what we do,” he said.

He added that the biggest danger to power facilities in our area is not a terroristic threat, but a weather-related one.

“At this point, our biggest threat is still Mother Nature,” he said, citing tornados and ice storms. “Thankfully, we’ve not seen a high damaging ice storm in Missouri since 2007.”Alexander said one standard piece of safety advice always applies: If you see something, say something.

Gibson said all of CU’s employees are trained to keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t look right. That includes line workers, tree trimmers, transit drivers and the entire organization.

Alexander added that CU workers and contractors always wear identification.

Individuals and businesses can help with security by reporting suspicious activity either to CU or the police.


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