Our Electric Substations Need Protection Beyond Fences

On April 16th, 2013, terrorists attacked a substation near San Jose California. For 10 full minutes, snipers fired openly at PG&E’s Metcalf transmission substation. At this point, a plant operator became aware of the shots and contacted the police. Unhindered by guards or police for far too long, theterrorists managed to incapacitate 17 of the transformers at the station. The perpetrators were never caught.

As highlighted in a report on substation security by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the physical threat to substations is very real. If terrorists coordinated an attack to fire on and destroy nine of our substations and one transformer manufacturer, the entire United States power grid would be offline for more than a year,” FERC concluded. Nine substations is the equivalent of well under 1 percent of the number of substations that exist.

In other words, the electrical system that we rely on to do business, cook our food, transfer funds, heat water, run hospitals and any number of other functions critical to both our economy and our way of life is vulnerable to a group of rowdy teenagers — or anyone else – with just a rifle. While many efforts have been focused on the security of computer networks within the substations, the physical protection of our power grid has not been under the same scrutiny. In the past, most threat reduction systems have been designed to stop copper thieves, not terrorist attacks.

Luckily, the California attack prompted utility companies to prepare for potential future events like the April 16, 2013 attack. And in July, FERC sanctioned the revision of perimeter security standards for the physical security of transformers and substations. While many of the 55,000 substations in the United States are equipped with security measures such as fence sensors, thermal cameras or microwave and passive infrared (PIR) motion sensors, almost none can detect and respond to threats outside of the fence.

We need to instead focus on innovative solutions such as ground-based radar technology that looks beyond the fence line. This type of system could overcome some of the limitations of camera-based security — such as inclement weather — in addition to broadening the coverage area. Better methods of training plant operators and increased remote monitoring are also needed.

The bottom line is that our nation relies heavily on electronics, and that dependence grows everyday with the rapid technological advances we are experiencing. In order to protect our infrastructure and our very way of life, additional security measures at critical substations are essential. New FERC guidelines are a start, but it is my hope that substation managers will do more than the bare minimum to protect one of our nation’s most vital resources: our power.

Logan Harris, founder and CEO of SpotterRF, is an experienced entrepreneur with a deep technical background in RF and DSP. His experience has ranged from semiconductor processing with IBM, fiber optics with TRW, mass spectrometry for Sensar Larson Davis and home automation with Vantage. He holds a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Brigham Young University.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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