EDITORS NOTE: The 2016 film “Amerigeddon” gives a theatrical look at what this country might be, AFTER a grid attack.
An early morning passerby phoned in a report of two people with flashlights prowling inside the fence of an electrical substation in Bakersfield, Calif. Utility workers from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. later found cut transformer wires.
The following night, someone slashed wires to alarms and critical equipment at the substation, which serves 16,700 customers. A guard surprised one intruder, who fled. Police never learned the identities or motive of the burglars.
The Bakersfield attacks last year were among dozens of break-ins examined by The Wall Street Journal that show how, despite federal orders to secure the power grid, tens of thousands of substations are still vulnerable to saboteurs.
The U.S. electric system is in danger of widespread blackouts lasting days, weeks or longer through the destruction of sensitive, hard-to-replace equipment. Yet records are so spotty that no government agency can offer an accurate tally of substation attacks, whether for vandalism, theft or more nefarious purposes.
Most substations are unmanned and often protected chiefly by chain-link fences. Many have no electronic security, leaving attacks unnoticed until after the damage is done. Even if there are security cameras, they often prove worthless. In some cases, alarms are simply ignored.
The vulnerability of substations was broadly revealed in a Journal account of a 2013 attack on PG&E’s Metcalf facility near San Jose, Calif. Gunmen knocked out 17 transformers that help power Silicon Valley; a blackout was narrowly averted. The assailants were never caught.
The following year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the country’s interstate power system, began requiring that utilities better protect any substation that could disable parts of the U.S. grid if attacked.