RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — As gunshots at two electrical substations knocked out power to thousands of homes in central North Carolina for several days in early December, Republican state Rep. Ben Moss watched as his busy district filled with family farms, small businesses and sprawling fields to become a “ghost town” for golf.
After last week’s latest attack on a substation in Randolph County, northeast of Charlotte, Moss is urging fellow lawmakers to prioritize new legislation to protect the state’s critical infrastructure when the Legislature begins this week. He is one of the first state lawmakers to propose grid protection this year amid a surge in attacks on U.S. substations, primarily in the Carolinas and the Pacific Northwest.
Recent attacks in Moore County, North Carolina, and others in Washington, Oregon, South Carolina and Nevada have highlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s far-reaching electrical grid, which security experts have long warned could become a target for domestic extremists.
Lawmakers in at least two affected states — North Carolina and South Carolina — have begun offering legal remedies.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through what Moore (County) did,” said Moss, a 2024 candidate for state labor commissioner whose district saw a peak when more than 45,000 customers lost power. “When the power goes out, you don’t have heat, you don’t have food, you can’t get fuel or some medicine, people are in danger.”
Moss is drafting a bill, previewed by The Associated Press, that would require utilities to provide 24-hour security at substations that convert high-voltage electricity into lower voltage that powers communities. Security arrangements will vary by facility, with some already fenced in around the cameras, while others are more secure.
He sees the bill as “opening a conversation” between lawmakers, utilities and safety experts to help the General Assembly identify cost-effective protections that won’t raise consumer prices.
His call for increased surveillance comes as questions remain about the Moore County shootings. The FBI is still looking for information and no arrests have been made.
Federal regulators in December ordered a review of physical security standards across the nation’s sprawling power transmission network after the North Carolina attacks. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees the nation’s power system, has until early April to submit a report and recommend possible improvements.
Manny Counsel, NERC’s senior vice president and CEO of the Energy Clearinghouse and Analysis Center, said the situation calls for greater communication and cooperation between different levels of government, industry leaders and law enforcement.
“The frequency has increased, the targeting has increased,” Counsell said. “What we’ve seen are patterns of clusters … or assets that are close to each other that are consistently being targeted.”
Utilities in South Carolina — where shots were fired near a Duke Energy facility but left unharmed days after the shootings in North Carolina — are asking lawmakers to increase penalties for intentionally destroying electrical infrastructure or other utility property.
The state Senate’s proposal would set a sliding scale based on how much damage is done — if equipment repairs and damages cost more than $25,000, the offender could face up to 20 years in prison, double the current 10-year maximum.
A maximum sentence of 25 years will apply if someone dies or their health is endangered as a result of the shutdown.
South Carolina Dominion Energy President Keller Kissam said there were at least 12 cases of people intentionally damaging equipment in the state last year.
“You want to demoralize people, you keep them in the dark,” he said.
Some state senators worry the law could be used against hunters who accidentally damage utility equipment. Kissam agreed, but sometimes said the injuries were not accidental, as hunters use the equipment to aim or practice shooting. The subcommittee plans to consider the bill in a few weeks.
Another South Carolina bill calls for tougher penalties for destruction caused specifically by a gun or explosives.
Brian Harrell, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said that while tougher penalties for equipment sabotage could be a deterrent, state legislatures can best support utilities by freeing up funds for additional security measures.
“Specifically, securing money for perimeter security, cameras and alarms,” said Harrell, who now oversees security for the energy company that serves several states.
Building in all the new security features would cost about $2.5 million per site, he said. But many substations already have a fence, which significantly reduces the cost. For about $800,000, one substation can be equipped with pan-tilt-zoom cameras, an intrusion detection system, and an access control system.
The Pacific Northwest has become a hot spot for these physical attacks, with utilities in Washington and Oregon reporting at least 15 incidents in 2022, including 10 in the last two months of the year.
On Christmas Day, attackers attacked four substations in Washington, forcing their way into them, setting fire to equipment and temporarily knocking out power to thousands of customers.
Michael Furze, director of the Washington State Energy Administration, said that while no legislation specifically addressing substation safety has been introduced, there is a broader bipartisan discussion about grid resiliency.
Washington is already rebuilding its electricity infrastructure under the Clean Power Transition Act, which commits the state to zero-emission electricity by 2045. Work is underway to update physical and cyber security as the power grid undergoes significant changes to meet the new standards, Furze said.
“Security by design” is a key component of these systems, he said.
In neighboring Oregon, the Public Utilities Commission is working with regulated utilities to increase vigilance and explore possible security upgrades after gunfire damaged two substations southeast of Portland in late November. Spokeswoman Kandi Young said the committee is tracking the proposed legislation and is not aware of any related bills introduced this session.
And in Nevada, where a man set fire to a solar power plant this month, a search of 138 requests for draft bills with pre-filed text turned up none that specifically addressed electrical infrastructure safety. But with more than two weeks left in the biennial session, most legislative proposals have yet to be formally introduced.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Reporting for America is a nonprofit national outreach program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues.
Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon and Gabe Stern in Reno, Nevada contributed to this report.
NC lawmakers offer power grid protection after attacks – CBS17.com
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