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Think power is expensive now? Just wait until we need security guards to protect our substations from extremists and fascists.

Pete Condon's picture
Advanced Analytics Manager, Water Corporation

Peter has worked in Data Science and Data Engineering roles since 2005 across a range of sectors, including Mining, Utilities, and Finance. He has extensive experience in the end-to-end...

  • Member since 2023
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  • Jan 16, 2023

The recent spate of attacks on electrical infrastructure in the USA is a worrying trend; widely reported as an escalation of domestic terrorism. The threat is significant, but the implications are more broad than the short-term interruption in supply usually described in the media. These strikes have long-term implications for the cost of living crisis and the stability of democracy.

Electrical infrastructure has been a target in international warfare since World War 2 and domestic terrorism since at least 1975. It is easy to see why: electricity plays a role in almost every aspect of advanced economies. It is vital for industries like mining and manufacturing, essential services like food storage and wastewater treatment and conveniences like the Internet and lighting. Without electricity life in our cities would look very different within days. However, electrical infrastructure is difficult to protect and time consuming to fix. 

While electricity companies take physical security seriously, current measures haven’t been enough to stop determined attackers. Protecting the entire system of poles and wires is unrealistic due to their enormous scale, but fortunately the impact of such an attack would be limited and electricity companies deal with failures in those assets every day. It is the substations - specifically the power transformers - where the real vulnerability lies. Anecdotally, the wait time for power transformers has ballooned out to three years and that could significantly increase if demand spikes due to intentional destruction. 

There are many thousands of substations at risk and measures to defend the system will need to be applied at scale. The cost of security will be high but the price of failing to protect could be catastrophic. Ultimately any increase in physical security expenditure will be passed onto consumers or taxpayers, which will exacerbate the cost of living crisis and harm those who can least afford it.

It is positive that this rising threat is on the radar of the security services, and hopefully traditional law enforcement techniques will reduce the likelihood of attacks from small-time players. But there is a real threat that more organised groups could conduct a large-scale false flag attack to advance their own aims, like a modern day Reichstag Fire. If successful, such groups could also act as a playbook for similar attacks in other jurisdictions, further endangering stable democracy.

Until the situation deescalates, our society needs to add the increased threat from domestic terrorism to the balancing act between security and affordability.

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Jan 20, 2023

The cat certainly seems to be out of the bag on this. Attacking the grid always represented an easy way to do a lot of damage for bad actors, but they didn't know it. Now, they do. 

Pete Condon's picture
Pete Condon on Jan 27, 2023

I wonder if it points to an increase in motivation. Destroying your own community's electrical infrastructure seems like a spectacular own goal, but maybe people are getting to the point of cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Whitman Fulton's picture
Whitman Fulton on Jan 26, 2023

Thanks for this piece.  I've been thinking about this exact scenario for years.  I believe that the economic and security fundamentals favor at least a partial rebalancing of generation and grid support infrastructure toward colocation with load.  A day is not so far off when sectionalizing final distribution lines into temporary microgrids will become a highly viable response to this kind of risk (and other outage risks).

Full disclosure, I have a biased view of the issue, given that my company provides grid-edge connectivity for small scale DERs.  I have no dog in the fight WRT to who owns the assets, I just want to see the system work securely and efficiently.

Would welcome perspectives on whether I'm right or wrong and, most importantly, why.

Pete Condon's picture
Pete Condon on Jan 27, 2023

Western Australia has been moving in this direction for a few years thanks to a combination of huge amounts of rooftop solar (60+% of underlying demand at time) and very long, rural distribution networks. The Kalbarri Microgrid seems to be operating well, although I'm disappointed the PowerBank trials don't seem to have taken off. It'll be interesting to see what happens if someone can get the cost of storage down a bit.

Whitman Fulton's picture
Whitman Fulton on Jan 27, 2023

Thanks, Pete.  Do you know who makes the decision to island or reconnect the Kalbarri microgrid during times of duress?  Is the microgrid operator able to self-isolate (with whatever attendant notification needed to the grid operator) or is it solely up to the distribution grid operator?  

Pete Condon's picture
Pete Condon on Jan 29, 2023

Almost the entire grid (distribution and transmission) in the southwest corner of WA is owned by Western Power. Typically, the microgrid disconnects when there is an interruption on the feeder from Geraldton (~150 km or 100 miles away).

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 26, 2023

Over time, would be a good idea to simply put concrete walls around the big hard to replace transformers, which have always been targets for jerks with rifles. Walls are relatively  easy to construct and also provide protection against tornado/high-wind induced damaging missiles as well as explosions from oil-filled transformers. Such protection is routinely provided at power plants. The rest of the equipment is relatively easy to quickly replace.

The substations are already protected by fences to keep people away from the dangerous electrical gear. There is no reason to panic, contrary to the hysterical overreaction of the liberal media and some politicians.

There are Industry standards on the substations - might want to beef them up somewhat. No need for the regulators to get involved as the bureaucrats will only needlessly drive-up costs as they add all manner of complexity to increase government control.

Pete Condon's picture
Pete Condon on Jan 27, 2023

I agree a solid wall around the transformers would be a good start for stopping the jerks with guns (assuming it doesn't get in the way of maintenance too much). But it's unlikely to stop a prepared, determined bad actor. 

Absolutely - regulatory overreaction will needlessly drive costs up, which is why it's important for law enforcement and utilities to succeed in deescalating this situation. It's not a panic stations yet, but it will be a slippery slope if these attacks start damaging the windings.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jan 27, 2023

Thanks for this post - this is for sure an issue I think we will be addressing more and more this year! 

The wait time for the transformers is for sure an added concern when it comes to this issue - 

Anecdotally, the wait time for power transformers has ballooned out to three years and that could significantly increase if demand spikes due to intentional destruction. 

Pete Condon's picture
Thank Pete for the Post!
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