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    Imbalance of power: How vulnerable is North Carolina’s power grid? Very.


    December 6, 2022 - MARY RAMSEY The Charlotte Observer

     

      CARTHAGE — An attack on two electrical substations that's left thousands in Moore County without power for days has raised questions about the security of North Carolina's power grid.

      The Moore County incident — caused by what law enforcement says was "intentional damage" — has triggered curfews and school closures, demonstrating the widespread implications of power outages.

      The threat of direct attacks like the one on Saturday night, as well as looming cybersecurity risks, pose serious concerns to communities in North Carolina and beyond, experts say. And developing strategies to combat those threats is top-of-mind for the organizations that manage the state and nation's power grid.

      Tens of thousands of people braced for days without electricity in a North Carolina county where authorities say two power substations were shot up by one or more people with apparent criminal intent.

      Across Moore County southwest of Raleigh on Monday, businesses handed out free food or coffee. Shops conducted transactions in cash. One local economic official described the area known for its golf courses and local pottery as "eerily quiet" at a time of year when businesses are normally full of tourists and holiday shoppers.

      Meanwhile, federal, state and local authorities were undertaking a massive investigation of what's being described as a serious attack on critical infrastructure. Utility officials said it could take until Thursday to restore all power.

      Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said that authorities have not determined a motivation. He said someone pulled up, breached the substation gates and opened fire.

      "It wasn't random," he said.

      Roughly 35,000 electric customers in the county of 100,000 were without power Monday — down by several thousand from the peak of the outages — as temperatures dropped below freezing.

      "When the power was cut, the flow of information was cut, too," said Andrew Wilkins, whose parents live in Carthage.

      Security is one of the top risks facing the Southeast's power grid, according to the most recent risk report from SERC, a division of the National Electric Reliability Council that includes North Carolina. That includes — per the report released in January — cybersecurity threats and the threat of sabotage.

      "Physical attacks on electric power infrastructure and assets" are "on the rise," SERC reports.

      Examples have been seen nationwide, including a 2013 incident in California during which shooters fired 150 rounds from assault rifles into a Pacific Electric and Gas substation and the 2021 case of an Arkansas man setting fire to a substation and damaging a power line and electric tower.

      SERC President Jason Blake said in a statement on Monday the group is "in close coordination with Duke Energy" about the Moore County attack.

      Locally, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said the agency is "working with our partners and continuing to monitor developments in Moore County as well as assess needs in our jurisdiction."

      "We have a long-standing and great partnership with Duke Energy as well as a robust security plan in place," the department said.

      Cybersecurity is also a major concern, SERC notes, especially as electrical systems become more automated and reliant on "third-party service providers, vendors, and/or other organizations."

      "Nations and criminal groups pose the most significant cyber threats to U.S. critical infrastructure," according to the federal Government Accountability Office. "These threat actors are increasingly capable of attacking the grid."

      Attackers could also bring down power grids "indirectly," SERC says, by in some way affecting "supporting systems" and "critical infrastructure" such as water supplies and natural gas used by power plants or disrupting the supply chain for electricity.

      At the federal level, money is being put into combating cybersecurity threats. That includes $45 million allocated by the federal Department of Energy earlier this year "to create, accelerate and test technology that will protect our electric grid from cyberattacks."

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