Posted to Energy Central in the Grid Professionals Group
Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Dec 8, 2022

By now, we've all watched the fallout from the deliberate attack of the North Carolina substations. While authorities are still working to identify the perpetrators and the motive, the utility sector is focused on the renewed conversation about physical security of assets. This type of attack is not the first of its kind and it won't be the last, but this is likely the most significant spotlight such an event has put on physical security in quite some time. 

So as utility leaders, what can and should we be learning from this event and how do we prepare to prevent such incidents and their fallout as best as possible in the future? 

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Well. Downsize. Make solar and wind locally. De-urbanize. 


The time of the gridded society is gone. Ranging from water supply to energy supply to sewage/waste handling.

We have been proud of our centralized and addiction creating grids for more than a century but these don't work.

We must conclude that every possible solution must fit in durable sustainable ways into a new paradigm.

Cindy Miller here below suggests micro grids. I concur. We need to downsize. We can indeed do grid to grid, and surely that must be done. But bottom line is: The grid is dead. The utility as a service is dead. 

Incoming is these new solar concentrators which are made in molybdenum steel and lasts and delivers for 300 to 500 years. 

Incoming is super primitive and super inefficient systems which are a bit larger than can be made scientifically but, where the cost of the energy is such super cheap so that there is no doubt about its workability.

Wind is workable when built super cheap...

Rational Intuitive ltd.

David Svarrer 

Thank you for asking this important question.  I too wonder if microgrids might become helpful in generally being less obvious a target.  I wonder if Emera's BlockEnergy community microgrid platform may become more widespread in the future.  But I do not know how dominant the model could be.  I have previously written an article on microgrids for the Environmental Law Committee of the Florida Bar. 

See my recently posted article on this topic here

Do recent thefts and vandalism in NC, WA and OR require an immediate response at electric utility substations? At a minimum, coordination with local law enforcement and an improved level of physical security awareness by utility personnel, neighbors and customers. Perhaps, a public service announcement campaign in the coming weeks.

Longer term, fences replaced by walls and steel gates, motion detection lighting and surveillance, and more frequent security patrols by local law enforcement.

Planners and engineers take note. Review past experience with the coordinated attack at PG&E’s Metcalf Substation in 2013 (see and consider your options.

David Svarrer's picture
David Svarrer on Dec 30, 2022

Nah. Not feasibile. All this control control control? Nah. Let's say we have a few small individual issues nationwide, even 5 times per year, should we then install all this hardware? No. Rather demilitarize and be more social. More kindness. This will go a long way. It is not a problem for the utilities. It is a social issue. IMHO...

David Svarrer

Rational Intuitive ltd 

I have a question about the question, actually. We're seeing a major uptick in interest in microgrids, particularly those powered by smaller renewable energy systems. Most of the reporting and analysis we're seeing points to their added resilience against severe storms and other major climate disasters, but also to the opportunity for utilities to get a handle on peak demand (and the need for expensive, non-renewable peaking assets).

Noting the concern that remote substations are hard to protect -- would a microgrid be a small enough target to be less interesting to someone planning a physical attack? Or is this an operational issue that will become more important as grids begin to decentralize?

(There's a whole other line of discussion around the ideologies and divisions that make this kind of attack a more serious risk, and how it's in the interests of all industries including the power sector to do whatever they can to foster a more stable, cohesive society and culture. I'm guessing that particular rabbit hole is one that we won't want to go down in this thread. But after going through the convoy occupation in Ottawa, Canada earlier this year, it's something we've been paying quite a bit of attention to around here...)

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Dec 19, 2022

There are basically three components in a microgrid:

  • Generators (typically photovoltaic PV arrays, and perhaps backup generators)
  • Battery energy storage system(s) (BESS)
  • A computer-based controller

Having worked on a few large microgrids, I know that the BESS for these would be hard to replace quickly, but these normally use standard electrical enclosures. Thus, they might be hard to identify without inside knowledge.

If you are interested in microgrids, I have posted several papers on these on Energy Central. Go through the link below and then to section 14.


This isn't the first recent attack of this type. In April 2013, what appears to be a much more sophisticated attack was carried out on PG&E's Metcalf transmission substation near San Jose. Go through the link below for details, but I can add one personal note. At that time, I worked for Siemens, and my cubical was in a Siemens Energy Office. After the attack several Siemens Energy employees (and I assume other major PG&E Transformer Suppliers) worked hard to assemble replacement hardware.


Matt - Thanks for posting this question - I am looking forward to following this topic as we learn more. 

Wide area blackouts caused by physical security threats are preventable. However, at this time, it is a real possibility that a single saboteur could create a multi-state blackout on a hot day in July or August, and escape detection. Additionally, electric utility repairmen are at risk of being in harm’s way, should they enter a substation that is occupied by a saboteur.

It’s time for electric utilities to upgrade physical security standards for every substation. I recommend the following three updates to physical security:

  • Bolstered perimeter security strategies to prevent intruders from entering critical facilities.

  • Focused intrusion detection to detect potential threats and inform law enforcement rapidly.

  • Reinforced interior security to protect critical components.

All substations, including neighborhood substations, should be as secure as airport terminals. If NERC, FERC, and electric utilities are not willing to implement this level of security, standards should be implemented at the state level. More in my power system security blog collection.

Mark Allen's picture
Mark Allen on Dec 12, 2022

This is all well and good until your company goes to their commission for a rate increase to cover the costs. I fear that this will not happen until the really major incident you describe takes place, and the public demands the response. I don't believe that the utilities are unwilling to do the upgrades to security, they just don't have the resources to do it without increasing rates, which is problematic right now due to a host of factors. 

John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Dec 13, 2022

It is a very complicated problem protecting most substations because of their remote locations. There's a lot of research that has been done since the Metcalf incident on the West Coast quite a number of years ago. The farthest reaching from the substation would be perimeter intrusion detection, motion sensors, infrared cameras, closed circuit cameras, etc. These can all be used to notify operators of potential encroachment towards the substation. It doesn't necessarily help because by the time someone responds it could be too late. Second, there's been some advancements in certain types of protective fencing around substations. I saw a presentation a few years ago where chain link fence was weaved with a Kevlar material that was designed to deflect incoming rounds to protect equipment as well as making use of Constantine and Razor wire. Then you get inside the substation perimeter you need to think about blast walls and other forms of hardening the facilities. It is a daunting task and obviously there's no way to completely eliminate the threats of a determined foe. The biggest impediment to doing any of this is the money, obviously there would be a significant cost to harden all substations and as usual it's going to float up and down the budget item list as other critical issues bubble to the surface.

Cindy Miller's picture
Cindy Miller on Dec 28, 2022

Excellent points!