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Physical attacks to grid surge despite drop in overall disturbances, data shows

Posted December 8, 2022 10:34 p.m. EST
Updated December 9, 2022 12:58 p.m. EST

More shots were reported this week near a substation but this time in South Carolina.

It happened Wednesday night at the Wateree Hydrostation in Ridgeway, about 30 minutes north of Columbia. It didn’t result in any outages and there wasn’t any physical damage, Duke Energy told WRAL Data Trackers, but the FBI and local authorities are investigating.

Part of the investigation includes figuring out if this attempted attack has ties to Moore County, if this is a copycat incident, or an accident.

It's what would be classified as suspicious activity - a physical threat to the power grid - by the Department of Energy.

"A lot of our strategy centers around doing everything we can to strengthen the grid to avoid any kind of interruption," said Jeff Brooks, a spokesperson for Duke Energy. "But there is an understanding that you can do everything, the best possible way, and you can still have a disruption."

So far this year, thousands of people across the country have had disruptions like people in Moore County experienced this week. Outages and sitting in the dark due to physical attacks to the power grid are rising, data shows.

There have been at least 70 physical attacks resulting in electric disruptions this year, DOE information shows. The data only goes through the end of August. A spokesperson for the Department of Energy told WRAL the data for the entire year, which would include the two incidents in Moore County and the one in South Carolina, should be updated in early 2023. 

"The U.S. Department of Energy takes the security of the nation’s power grid very seriously and will continue to work with law enforcement, interagency partners, and utilities to address any and all interruptions of electric power and threats to our electric system reliability," the department spokesperson said.

Secretary Jennifer Granholm has commented that threats to the nation's energy infrastructure continue to evolve. During the first eight months of this year, 27% of all electric disruption events were caused by a physical attack which includes an actual incident where the equipment is damaged, sabotage or vandalism.

For a comparable analysis, the Data Trackers looked at reports during the first eight months of every year dating back to 2012.

In that time, physical attacks have more than doubled. This year marks the most in a decade.

"It's just hard for me to understand why the appropriate agencies haven't moved more expeditiously here over the last nine years [since the Metcalf sniper event]," said Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the CEO of GridPolicy. "That's the greatest concern for me. Hopefully this will be the second wake up call that will move them to more rapid action."

Also notable is what has occurred the last three years. Overall disruptions have dropped but physical attacks have increased.

During the first eight months of this year, North Carolina has had nine disruptions. The data shows there was a physical attack on a substation in Durham in March. There weren’t any outages associated with it, the report reveals, and Duke Energy officials couldn’t comment at this time about what exactly happened.

Those with Duke Energy say any physical threat and attack on the system put people and communities at risk.

"Sometimes a seemingly simple act can have can have a significant implications," Brooks said.

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