Months Later, Sniper Attack at Power Hub Still a Mystery
SAN FRANCISCO — A mysterious and sophisticated sniper attack last year on a Silicon Valley power substation has underscored concerns about the vulnerability of the country’s electrical grid and prompted debate over whether it was an act of terrorism.
The chain of events is not in dispute: Shortly before 1:30 a.m. on April 16, 2013, one or more people methodically cut communication cables near a Pacific Gas & Electric substation in San Jose, sprayed more than 100 rifle bullets and knocked out 17 of the station’s 23 transformers before fleeing and avoiding capture. A grainy black-and-white surveillance video released by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office in a search for leads shows shots being fired for about a minute at the substation.
Though the utility was able to prevent a power failure by diverting electricity from other areas, the damage took 27 days to repair, said Brian Swanson, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigating the attack, but says it has no evidence of terrorism nor any suspects.
“The F.B.I. at this time does not believe it is related to terrorism, based on the initial assessment of the investigation,” Peter Lee, an agency spokesman in San Francisco, said, adding that he was unable to disclose further details. The agency also considers the attack an isolated one, Mr. Lee said.
A law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said the situation so far was ambiguous.
“When you don’t know who did it and you don’t know what their motives were, it is very hard to say whether it was terrorism or not,” the official said. “Some people said it looks like they had military training, some people say that you can learn this from a video game. We just don’t know.”
So who knows? But based on my extensive reading of fictional thrillers, I found this to be thought-provoking:
The attack has renewed anxiety over the potential vulnerability of the power grid to physical attack, adding to worries about cybersecurity and the ordinary adversaries of hurricanes, floods, wild animals and falling trees.
On Wednesday, utility officials tried to tamp down concern. “It’s harder to knock out the lights than people think because of redundancy and resilience,” said Gerry W. Cauley, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit group that sets standards for the nation’s utilities.
The location of substations is public, but it is a closely guarded secret what combination of them would have to be knocked out to cause extensive harm. It could be as few as a handful in each of the three grids, the eastern continent, from Halifax to New Orleans, the western continent, from New Mexico to Vancouver, and Texas.
We are building to the payoff:
In response to the April attack, the nation’s electric utilities began a two-and-a-half-year program to identify what substations or combinations of substations were most critical to the operations of the continent’s three power grids, how to minimize damage to them once an attack was detected, how to bring in law enforcement personnel before sending in the repair crews, and how to reconfigure the system after an attack to achieve maximum capacity.
I am sure this has crossed the minds of the people involved in this study, but - the playbook for the good guys could easily double as the game plan for the bad guys.
Just imagine that the people who hit the San Jose station are pros with a plan. And suppose they have their own Edward Snowden operating inside a utility somewhere. Within the next few years they may be able to steal away with the detailed assessment of the critical vulnerabilities of our nation's power grids which is currently under development. We might even speculate (wildly!) that a key goal of the San Jose exercise was to try to provoke the creation of such a plan.
Of course, the good guys see through this so they track access to the developing plans very carefully in an attempt to flush out the mole. Or try too - geez, such a page-turner.