Electric Utility Substation Sabotage: Stakes High for Future Security

Posted by Ashley Little on April 24, 2014

electric_utility_substation_sabotageWhen an unknown individual slipped into PG&E’s Metcalf Substation in April 2013 and fired a rifle on transformers causing more than $15 million in damage, many in the utility industry considered it a security game-changer. “It was a pretty big attack on a major substation…and opened a lot of eyes in the industry,” noted PG&E Vice President Gregg Lemier. This April, PG&E took the next step, offering a $250,000 reward for information on whoever may be responsible for the incident.[1]

While perhaps the most significant attack in recent years, owing mostly to the size of the substation and its importance to the population of a major city like San Francisco, incidents of this kind are not unique. In 2011, one person died after what was speculated to be an attempt to steal copper from a Duke Energy substation in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In this deadly event, more than 3,000 people lost power.[2] Vandals also damaged circuit breakers in Buford, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, in early 2014, knocking out power to a highly-trafficked shopping district and surrounding residences.[3] Breeches like this happen. So, what can you do to protect your assets and the public’s sense of security?

Clear the decks

A simple precautionary measure includes removing underbrush and other objects that could be easily used by lurkers to hide near substations. Never has hiring an arborist or lawn service company meant so much to national security.

Turn on and tune in

PG&E plans to spend $100 million over the next three years to ensure enhanced security protects every corner of all of its substations. The expenditure includes a variety of measures, but most notably enhanced camera technology and increased lighting.[4] The key to video surveillance is having eyes on the facility at key times, though working cameras may have helped the company shed some light on exactly who attacked their substation in the 2013 attack after the fact as well.

Consider physical security

Since the 2013 attack, PG&E has employed 24/7 security guards to surround the Metcalf Substation. While a costly expense, the use of patrols is an effective tactic to keep would-be vandals and those with more sinister goals away from vital equipment.

Beef up barriers

From bulletproof shields to massive concrete barriers, all manner of walls and baffles have been suggested to better protect substations. Technical hurdles do exit with regard to closing off very large, very hot transformers, but the idea of throwing up walls seems an obvious one that will likely continue to be explored.

Fix things fast

If all else fails and someone does manage to infiltrate barriers and damage equipment, simply having sophisticated and up-to-date records, like those kept in a an integrated joint use communication, inventory and management system can help you get power restored quickly and cost-effectively.


[1] http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/south_bay&id=9500018

[2] http://www.wspa.com/story/21457369/one-person-dead-suspected-vandalism-at-duke-energy-substation

[3] http://www.accessnorthga.com/detail-pf.php?n=190989

[4] http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/south_bay&id=9500018


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