I-Team: ‘We can’t afford not to do it;’ Better protecting the U.S. power grid

DAYTON — A former federal regulator overseeing America’s power utilities is talking about the growing number of attacks on our electrical power supply.

It has the I-Team looking at what’s being done to protect our power grid against physical attacks.

Data the I-Team pulled from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) shows 163 instances of physical attacks, vandalism, suspicious activity, or sabotage in 2022 -- nearly tripling 2018′s total for an all-time high. DOE reported 57 in 2018, 81 in 2019, 96 in 2020, and 91 in 2021. And Ohio is a top target. DOE reports show we were among the top 10 states in attacks last year -- with five instances in 2022.

In December, gunfire attacks at two electrical substations in North Carolina cut power to tens of thousands of homes for several days. Earlier this month, two suspects in Maryland were arrested and charged -- accused of plotting to shoot out substations around Baltimore. Investigators said they were hoping to kill power to the entire city. There was even a criminal trespass and scrap metal incident in Greene County in January which caused a power outage. Greene County deputies made an arrest in that case.

“I think it’s one of the most significant threats we have currently,” former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chair Jon Wellinghoff told the I-Team of the direct physical attacks against electrical infrastructure across the U.S. FERC is a government agency that oversees America’s power grid.

Wellhinghoff believes power companies aren’t doing enough to protect the country’s high-voltage transmission system. Now, he’s talking to the I-Team about measures he feels could make a big difference. Wellinghoff told News Center 7 this is not about reacting to a crime at an electrical substation, but rather preventing it.

“We’ve had some events across the nation that have made us have a much greater presence with looking at our power grids and our energy resources,” Greene County Sheriff Scott Anger told WHIO.

As federal investigators deal with the rising threat, Sheriff Anger told the I-Team that these kinds of attacks are on the radar of local law enforcement officials here in the Miami Valley too.

“We’ve had meetings with the power companies to go over some procedures to make those areas better protected,” Anger said.

As the I-Team first reported Thursday, we teamed up with our sister stations to visit more than 50 substations in seven states to see how safe our substations are. A common theme we noticed at many of our stops was a clear line of sight through a chain link fence to the key equipment inside substations. That’s something Wellinghoff says is one of the biggest problems.

“What can be done that needs to be done to destroy this type of infrastructure can be done in such a short period of time that having the first responders coming out is likely not going to solve the problem. You have to have some type of protections in place already …. I think the first thing they need to do is assess putting in ballistic barriers in front of the critical parts of the infrastructure.”

So how much would it cost power companies – and by extension, their customers – to harden these potential targets at their substations?

“Pennies on their bill,” Wellinghoff said. “There’s no question it’s much cheaper to do it on the front end than to fix the equipment, to suffer the outage. And the utilities don’t pay for the economic impact on the community or the lives that may have been put in danger.”

AES Ohio provides electricity for most customers in the Miami Valley. So the I-Team asked the company if there’s been any talk of obstructing line of fight at their substations given recent attacks?

“Some of the substations, depending on the location and the geography, do have those barriers,” Mary Ann Kabel, AES Ohio’s Director of Corporate Communications said.

The current standard allows power companies to decide which of their locations are most critical and require the most security. But in December, FERC ordered a review of those standards to see if those requirements should be increased.

“I think we now understand that there are people out there who are willing to perpetrate these acts and they’re too dangerous and they’re too devastating and we can’t afford not to do it,” Wellinghoff said.

We’re not the only ones looking into this – Congress is concerned about the increase in attacks on the U.S power grid too.

This week, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection, and Rep. Seth Magaziner (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence announced they sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) requesting a briefing on physical, and also cyber threats, posed by domestic terrorists to our Nation’s critical infrastructure, especially the power grid.

In the letter sent to DHS, the members wrote in part:

“The disrupted Baltimore plot is consistent with increased interest in attacks against the energy sector. Over the past five years, physical attacks at electrical facilities across the United States have been on the rise. In 2022 alone, the Department of Energy reported 163 direct physical attacks against electrical infrastructure across the country— an all-time high that represents a 77 percent year-over-year increase in such attacks. In just the past three months, our country has suffered from high-profile attacks against at least nine electrical substations. Together, I&A and CISA have the tools, resources, intelligence, and expertise that can be brought to bear in protecting targeted energy infrastructure against domestic extremists. Given the alarming rise of domestic violent extremism and in attacks against critical infrastructure generally, and the energy sector in particular, I&A and CISA have essential roles in ensuring SLTTs are informed and prepared to prevent attacks against electrical facilities.”

The congressmen did not say anything in the letter about specific timing of any briefing or of any potential hearings.

However, the I-Team will continue following this story and let you know whether that changes.