In this year’s twelve-pack of predictions for 2023, I forecast that the attacks on the U.S. power grid would continue, and the media would desperately attempt to blame their ideological opponents as extremists. Yawn. The attacks certainly risk public welfare, safety, and security, but what’s behind them? I took a couple of hours to investigate.
The Time article I referenced includes a quote, “’ Domestic terror groups understand that citizens losing power from gunfire or sabotage is an easy way to receive media attention, which they crave,’ says Brian Harrell, a former Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”
The FBI defines terrorism as “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
Terrorists want something, and if they go to the trouble of blowing things up or killing and maiming people, they will state their cause, just as Mr. Harrell alludes to above. A motive is different. Motives may include the joy of blowing things apart. Other causes may include the compulsion to do nefarious things for a thrill.
A Sample of Cases
A web search of the keywords “North Carolina grid attack motives” shows a string of articles that include a variety of ways that say the same thing: “the motive in the targeted attack is still unknown.”
This one is fascinating – the motive for the Washington attacks “was to commit a [as in one, (1)] burglary at a business while power was down.” Good lord! These fellas aren’t too bright. That is a failed burglary, not terrorism.
As a conditioned consumer of news, when I read this headline, “Colorado man: Vegas solar site fire was clean energy message,” I thought this must be a card-carrying member of the red hat brigade. Wrong. The suspect, Mohammed Reza Mesmarian, “‘did it for the big message, larger picture, the greater good,’ his arrest report said. ‘He explained the greater good was clean energy.’” His attack on a grid-scale solar plant was to promote clean energy. This attack is the first incident of terrorism that I’ve seen per the FBI’s definition.
I found another terror motive that was foiled in the fall of 2019. Three neo-Nazis were arrested for conspiracy to shoot up substations to shut down power to start race wars. See the connection? Sheeyeah, I always fear race war declarations when the power goes out. Jeez Louise.
So, there is a small sample of grid attacks and foiled attacks with motives that span the spectrum of absurdity. The unfortunate result of diversity in grid attacks includes difficulty preventing them from an investigative approach.
What can be done to protect substations? Start with the simple – like walls to hide the contents. It’s hard to hit the target when you can’t see it. Reduce vehicle access to one lane or two and battle harden that entry. A dry mote or a concrete wall around the rest of it can suffice.
The more significant threat to the grid is cyber and all the distributed energy resources connected to the grid via the internet, which makes the attack surface millions and billions of times larger than the old dumb-but-invulnerable grid.
Russia is likely turning an army of hackers loose on our power grid as U.S. and German tanks will soon be rolling into Ukraine. Furthermore, there is the Nord Stream 2 mystery. Biden said before the invasion that [paraphrasing] “If Russia invades Ukraine, there will be no Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” The reporter asked, “How will you do that with the project under Germany’s control.” Biden: “I promise you; we will be able to do it.”
Last week, Victoria Newland, who reports to Secretary of State Blinken, in a senate hearing said, “the administration is very gratified to know that Nord Stream 2 is now, as you [Senator Cruz] like to say, a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea.” Hmm.
Puesh Kumar, with the Department of Energy’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy, Security, and Emergency Response, states in an NPR interview, “The U.S. electric grid is actually very resilient.” And, I think, it is until it isn’t, but he seems to have the right attitude. I am less concerned about munitions attacks than I am with a foreign cyber or, worse, electromagnetic pulse attack.