I-Team explores security in place at power substations in light of Moore County attack

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Monday, December 5, 2022
I-Team explores security in place at power substations
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The targeted attack in Moore County is just the latest example of the physical and cyber-attacks utility companies are vulnerable to.

Power stations are vital to providing electricity to customers but they aren't invincible.

The targeted attack in Moore County is just the latest example of the physical and cyber-attacks utility companies are vulnerable to.

Nearly a decade ago, snipers opened fire at a substation in California. The attack damaged 17 transformers and caused widespread outages in Silicon Valley and an estimated $15 million in damage.

Another person with a rifle caused 13,000 customers in Utah to lose power back in 2016.

In Arkansas, someone used a tractor to damage lines and impact a substation.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department sentenced three men to prison after they plead guilty to plans to attack power grids across the country.

These attacks can be costly but also can mean life and death for some customers.

SEE ALSO: Moore County citizens dip into their cars to escape freezing cold homes amid widespread power outage

"Electricity used to be a luxury, but that's no longer the case. It is now life-sustaining and we've become totally dependent on our lifestyle and electricity. And without it, the impacts would be profound very quickly," said Kathy O'Dell, the vice president of member services for South River Electric Membership Corporation. "We have an obligation to our consumers and our community to make sure that we keep the electricity flowing because it is life-sustaining for all of us."

South River EMC provides power to nearly 50,000 residents across Cumberland, Harnett, Johnson, Sampson and Bladen County. O'Dell said Sunday they sent linemen out to physically inspect all of their substations as a precaution following the attack in Moore County.

O'Dell said many providers added surveillance to all their substations over the past decade to combat a rise in copper thefts. In recent years, the threats have grown more prominent for cyber and physical attacks.

O'Dell said all South River EMC sites have video systems that are monitored and audio alarms and they partner with local law enforcement.

River EMC continues to track ways to reinforce its sites to make it harder for people to gain access.

"There is no one solution. We are all vulnerable to some degree," she said.

While she said South River EMC hasn't experienced anything like the incident in Moore County, they do have a plan if an attack happens.

"We keep a lot of extra equipment in inventory. It's a little like insurance definitely, always seems pretty costly on the front end, but if you need it, it's worth its weight," O'Dell said. "So we keep some of the large transformers and regulators and a lot of the equipment that we might need. We also have a mobile substation that we could bring in if necessary to serve in a situation like this."

A spokesperson for Duke Energy said all of its substations have some level of cyber and physical security. The degree of security varies based on the size and location of the sites.

Physical security can range from a video system to a fence to a person surveilling the site. A spokesperson for Duke Energy was not able to confirm what level of security is in place at the two sites targeted in Moore County.

SEE ALSO: Drag artist vows to return to Moore County despite recent show ending early due to power grid attack

The company has had security in place for years but calls Saturday's attack 'unprecedented'.

Like South River EMC, Duke also confirmed it has equipment in reserve and pulled from parts in Charlotte for the repairs and replacements needed in Moore County.

Additionally, Duke along with local law enforcement have increased patrolling across Moore County sites since the attack.

Other industry experts have suggested that providers try to reduce substations' physical threats by building them inside, behind a wall or underground.

O'Dell said she doesn't believe that would solve all problems.

"For every great improvement, there's another challenge. So if you put facilities underground when there is an issue is more expensive and longer to be able to repair," she said. She also said online technology like Google Earth allows anyone to see stations even if they are behind a wall.

"So we have to just adapt and move on and take the efforts that we know are the best efforts we can take and be as conscious about safety and cost concerns moving forward," O'Dell said.

Duke Energy does have a risk management strategy but a spokesperson said going forward they will review the incident and figure out further ways to even better mitigate future risks.

Earlier this fall, Duke Energy announced part of its capital investment plan over the next decade includes $75 billion to modernize and harden its transmission and distribution infrastructure.