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Why you need to sniper-proof your grid (Now!)

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Quick Take: A few years after 9/11, a friend of mine served on a Department of Defense committee investigating the vulnerability of the U.S. electric power infrastructure. He later told me that one of the most chilling scenarios involved the so-called "Seven-Bullet Attack." This is the notion that snipers could black out much of the eastern seaboard with seven well-placed bullets in seven key substations.

 

That story may well be apocryphal. But as Brian Merchant reports on the Motherboard blog, sniper attacks on the grid have already been occurring in the states. Yes, it's true that nearly half of all cyberattacks in 2012 were against the grid according to one government report. But malicious people may not need to go to the trouble of hacking into the grid. They may be able to bring it down with a few bullets. Quick summary below, or go to the full story  for more details. - Jesse Berst

 

“Our enemies have the motive, the means, and the capacity to attack our grid with potentially catastrophic consequences,” Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) told Bloomberg last year. “The question is whether the utilities have the same determination to protect our country against these threats.”

 

Now the Wall Street Journal reports that snipers attacked a PG&E power plant nearly a year ago, nearly causing a partial blackout.

 

First they cut telephone cables. Then they opened fire on a substation, knocking out 17 transformers. Only by routing power around the substation was PG&E able to forestall a blackout.

 

The shooters have not been caught.

 

Former FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff called it "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred." If the attack was duplicated at scale, it could knock out the grid "and black out much of the country." Wellinghoff says the U.S. has 2,000 vulnerable substations.

 

Hackers haven't been able to do much damage to the grid (yet). But hurricanes and snowstorms reveal its physical vulnerability. Now the PG&E incident proves how easily malicious actors could wreak serious damage.

 

Distributed generation and microgrids will provide some protection. But it will be many years before we have remade the grid in that fashion. Meanwhile, utilities everywhere should be looking for ways to harden their substations against physical attack.

 

Jesse Berst is the founder and Chief Analyst of SGN and Chairman of the Smart Cities Council, an industry coalition.

 

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