Early in the morning on April 16, 2013, telephone cables were cut just outside of the Pacific Gas & Electric substation south of San Jose, California. Over the next 30 minutes, snipers opened fire on the electrical station, taking out 17 power transformers, putting all of Silicon Valley at risk of blackout and leaving shell casings cleaned of fingerprints and $15.4 million in damage. Pacific Gas & Electric officials have declined to discuss the event in detail for fear of giving information and inspiration to potential copycats. Because of this, the story was first brought to prominence in early February, 10 months after the fact. The story behind what is being called the most significant attack against the U.S. power grid is concerning, confusing and has conspiracy theorists abuzz.
The gunmen, who opened fire on the substation for 19 minutes, knew what to aim for. Rather than shooting the transformers themselves, which are explosion prone, the snipers hit oil-filled cooling systems that eventually caused the transformers to overheat and crash. Electricity grid workers were able to avoid a blackout by re-routing power from nearby plants, but it took almost one month to get the power station back online. Had the shooting taken place at a larger power station during a summer heat wave the results could have been catastrophic.
The FBI has declared the incident was not an act of terrorism, and Pacific Gas & Electric's official statement called it the work of vandals. No arrests have been made. However, many people are skeptical of these assessments, including former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, who points to the cutting of telephone lines and precise shooting as evidence that this was not the work of vandals. California Representative Henry Waxman called it "an unprecedented and sophisticated attack," while making note of the military-style weapons that were used.
How vulnerable is the grid?
Whether the attack was the act of vandals, terrorists or anyone else, the event shows the startling physical vulnerability of the U.S. electricity grid system. Widespread power outages can be devastating to residents and businesses, yet there is limited technology to prevent these outages. Had this attack occurred mid-day during the heat of summer, rerouting power would have been insufficient to match the demand, causing rolling blackouts that at worst could have matched the size and reach of the 2003 northeast blackout, which left 55 million people without power.
One of the best ways to improve grid reliability and resiliency is to install electricity storage systems. The current grid configuration offers no electricity storage systems, and any electricity not immediately consumed is wasted. If a power system fails, electricity must be rerouted to prevent widespread power outages. Grid storage systems prevent unused electricity from going to waste and serve as a backup power source in case of an unexpected failure. A reserve of electricity would allow grid workers to better account for changes in supply and demand, and better prevent blackouts that could stem from attacks such as the one we saw last year.
While the prospect of terrorists attacking our electricity grid with sniper rifles is frightening, the money that would be devoted to security measures might be better spent on installing grid batteries. These storage units could improve grid reliability during everyday use and in times of crisis.