Targeting the Grid

An EMP isn’t the only way to take down the grid. Simultaneous, coordinated, distributed attacks on multiple transformer substations could be very effective at causing mass blackouts, if enough transformers were seriously damaged or disabled.

I remember rumors about a sniper attack on a California substation last year. But now the attack is more than just a rumor: the details of what happened last April 16 at the PG&E Metcalf transmission substation in Silicon Valley have just been publicly revealed.

According to Business Insider:

The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Smith reports that a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman is acknowledging for the first time that a group of snipers shot up a Silicon Valley substation for 19 minutes last year, knocking out 17 transformers before slipping away into the night.

The attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the U.S., Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, told Smith.

A blackout was avoided thanks to quick-thinking utility workers, who rerouted power around the site and asked power plants in Silicon Valley to produce more electricity. But the substation was knocked out for a month.

The FBI says it doesn’t believe a terrorist organization caused the attack but that it continues to investigate the incident.

Smith and colleague Tom McGinty assembled a detailed chronology of the attack that includes some amazing details, including more than 100 fingerprint-free shell casings similar to ones used by AK-47s that were found at the site and small piles of rocks that appeared to have been left by an advance scout to tell the attackers where to get the best shots.

Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal article:

Assault on California Power Station Raises Alarm on Potential for Terrorism

SAN JOSE, Calif.—The attack began just before 1 a.m. on April 16 last year, when someone slipped into an underground vault not far from a busy freeway and cut telephone cables.

Within half an hour, snipers opened fire on a nearby electrical substation. Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley. A minute before a police car arrived, the shooters disappeared into the night.

To avoid a blackout, electric-grid officials rerouted power around the site and asked power plants in Silicon Valley to produce more electricity. But it took utility workers 27 days to make repairs and bring the substation back to life.

Nobody has been arrested or charged in the attack at PG&E Corp.’s Metcalf transmission substation. It is an incident of which few Americans are aware. But one former federal regulator is calling it a terrorist act that, if it were widely replicated across the country, could take down the U.S. electric grid and black out much of the country.

The attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the U.S., said Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn’t think a terrorist organization caused the Metcalf attack, said a spokesman for the FBI in San Francisco. Investigators are “continuing to sift through the evidence,” he said.

Some people in the utility industry share Mr. Wellinghoff’s concerns, including a former official at PG&E, Metcalf’s owner, who told an industry gathering in November he feared the incident could have been a dress rehearsal for a larger event.

“This wasn’t an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation,” Mark Johnson, retired vice president of transmission for PG&E, told the utility security conference, according to a video of his presentation. “This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.” When reached, Mr. Johnson declined to comment further.


Mr. Wellinghoff said a FERC analysis found that if a surprisingly small number of U.S. substations were knocked out at once, that could destabilize the system enough to cause a blackout that could encompass most of the U.S.

It turns out that low-tech attacks are more of a concern than cyberattacks:

“A lot of people in the electric industry have been distracted by cybersecurity threats,” said Stephen Berberich, chief executive of the California Independent System Operator, which runs much of the high-voltage transmission system for the utilities. He said that physical attacks pose a “big, if not bigger” menace.


To some, the Metcalf incident has lifted the discussion of serious U.S. grid attacks beyond the theoretical. “The breadth and depth of the attack was unprecedented” in the U.S., said Rich Lordan, senior technical executive for the Electric Power Research Institute. The motivation, he said, “appears to be preparation for an act of war.”

But the FBI doesn’t think it’s related to terrorism.

Hmm. What could it be, then? Workplace violence, perhaps?

Nah. It must have been space aliens. That’s it!

But the electric utility called it vandalism:

In a news release, PG&E said the substation had been hit by vandals. It has since confirmed 17 transformers were knocked out.

Mr. Wellinghoff, then chairman of FERC, said that after he heard about the scope of the attack, he flew to California, bringing with him experts from the U.S. Navy’s Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center in Virginia, which trains Navy SEALs. After walking the site with PG&E officials and FBI agents, Mr. Wellinghoff said, the military experts told him it looked like a professional job.

In addition to fingerprint-free shell casings, they pointed out small piles of rocks, which they said could have been left by an advance scout to tell the attackers where to get the best shots.

“They said it was a targeting package just like they would put together for an attack,” Mr. Wellinghoff said.

Like the New Year’s Day explosion and fire in Minneapolis, the Metcalf substation attack was swept under the rug. It just didn’t stay there.

How many other incidents are under there? That rug is starting to look pretty lumpy…

15 thoughts on “Targeting the Grid

  1. Most likely Muslim terrorists of some stripe, or some other foreign group. (Chicoms?) If the Feds had any inkling it was some sort of domestic right wing milita group the Obama admin mouth pieces would likely already be trumpeting it to push gun bans and other crackdowns on the right.

  2. This attack was done on one sub-station using AK47 (7.62 mm) rounds. Assuming it was a co-ordinated attack by one of the terrorist schools to “train the trainers” then there are multiple teams now being trained across the country to do a similar mass attack with maybe larger calibre weapons….

    At some stage our wonderful leadership must wake up to the fact that we are already at WAR.

    Taking down the grid can also have ‘unintended’ consequences as well, vis. Fukushima, Standby generators are notorious for failing to cut in and tend to have only enough fuel for a few days, replacement or repair of several hundred transformers could take months even years.

    This is indeed a startling revelation, a well trained group of commandos operating within the walls so to speak, able to take out targets at random leaving little to no evidence behind – Wake up people! call out the militia!

  3. Those survivalist ‘nutjobs’ are one step ahead of most folks in the US when this happens. We’ve stocked up on ammo and we have canned food, but the scary part for us is the high density of obamaphones to our north and to our east.

    Call me the conspiracy theorist, but this stuff fits into the scenario that allows the chosen one to declare martial law, postpone elections, and ‘secure the population’ by knocking on our door and ‘asking’ for our guns. Of course one big ol CME from Sol could start this whole mess too.

    Back to reading the important stuff on TMZ…….

  4. This is an instance (most likely) of leftist eco-terrorists, such as the E.L.F. The FBI (or any other federal agency) has no interest in leftist groups, as they do not fit the right-wing-extremist paradigm that the administration is trying to demonize in the press. Tea-partiers and gun-rights groups don’t do things like this, however, ecofascists and anarchists do.

    • E.L.F isn’t this smart or crazy and besides they’re heavily monitored by the Feds. This had all trappings of a military operation, jamming the communication lines, reconnaissance and pre-targeting, having someone watch for the police, sanitizing the ammo, fire discipline, etc.

      Hardly the work of some pot smoking hippy or college student.

      All they have to do now is wait until summer while power usage is maxed out and viola Silicon Valley goes into cardiac arrest.

      If they target Los Angeles, the whole city will be in flames in 72 hours after the SNAP cards stop working.

  5. Why is it that the FBI and Homeland Security are so often quick to contradict others with their now almost predictable conclusion that no terrorism was involved? Is it a question of their definition of terrorism, which may be totally different to what most people think of its meaning? Are these government agencies making feigning utterances in order to confound the perpetrators, so as not to alert the perpetrators to what the government knows? Are these agencies trying to keep a lid on a serious and festering problem, in order to keep it from the public, so as not to cause public alarm and outcry? Are these agencies totally incompetent? Are these agencies completely infiltrated by Mohammedans seeking to create havoc, thereby creating an environment full of opportunities for their true believing co-religionists? What other possibilities has this skeptic missed?

  6. Taking out the grid will also take down the power plants themselves. Many generators cannot ‘black start’. Which means they get their excitation energy from the grid. Restarting the plants will take time even if the grid is fully repaired.

    Also, some of the larger transformers are not made in the USA and have to be built to order. If enough substations are taken out, you could leave a region without power for months.

  7. This is from 3-1/2 years ago, but it does remind us how vulnerable our infrastructure is. Someone cut the fiber-optic lines that served parts of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties. All total, this affected the Internet access for around 250,000 people. Stores and businesses that relied on the web were down for the day.

    “San Jose police: Sabotage caused phone outage in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz counties”

    The substation mentioned in the story above is only 15 minutes drive time away from the location of this earlier fiber-optic cable sabotage.

  8. FWIW: One person could easily fire 100 rounds from an AK-47 in 19 minutes, so we should not assume that this is necessarily the work of an organized group (perhaps someone was “sighting in” before deer hunting?). That said, the infrastructure of our society, particularly electricity, water, chemical pipelines and communications are all sitting ducks for a technically savvy nutcase or a commando group from say, Iran’s special forces. This incident, even if it was a lone nut, is a great example of how “asymmetrical” warfare may be waged against us.

  9. I seem to recall that Clare Lopez was working on this issue before she was so rudely fired from Gatestone.

  10. Seems Chemical Engineering graduates, visiting Quabbin reservoir at midnight on ‘an educational visit’ , were merely doing their homework.
    Thank goodness the indomitable FBI can tell who the real jihadi’s are.

    May 18, 2013
    “The FBI has cleared the seven people who were arrested for trespassing at Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts after midnight on Wednesday. According to a May 18 report on The Blaze, the seven college graduates from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore were cleared of links to terrorism. The FBI says that these chemical engineers have nothing suspicious in their background, and they have been cleared of any links to terrorism.”

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  12. Back in the day, say 20-30 years ago, a prankster could cause a small Norwegian town to lose telephone service, very easily: Replace the “female” plug on a power extension cord with a “male” telephone plug, and connect the mains power with the telephone landline. Instant malfunction of the local switch would ensue; no more phone service that day!

    When someone DID that stunt, causing an alarming amount of disruption, it was hushed up. (Disclaimer: I never read news reports about it, but heard a sketchy account from an industry insider during a lecture, years after the fact.) The exploit was too simple, and the outcome too severe that the general public could be informed.

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