NC, SC lawmakers are proposing new legislation to protect power grids from wave of attacks

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When gunfire at two electrical substations knocked out power to thousands of homes in central North Carolina for several days in early December, Republican Representative Ben Moss saw his vibrant neighborhood of family farms, small businesses and sprawling golf courses become “a ghost town.”

Following last week’s latest attack on a substation in Randolph County, northeast of Charlotte, Moss is urging fellow lawmakers to prioritize new legislation that would secure the state’s critical infrastructure when the legislative session begins in earnest this week . He is one of the first state lawmakers to propose protection of the power grid this year amid a spate of attacks on U.S. substations, primarily in the Carolinas and the Pacific Northwest.

The recent attacks in Moore County, North Carolina, and others in Washington, Oregon, South Carolina and Nevada, have highlighted the fragility of the country’s widespread power grid, which security experts have long warned could be a target for domestic extremists .

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Lawmakers in at least two affected states — North Carolina and South Carolina — have begun proposing solutions.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through what Moore (County) did,” said Moss, a 2024 state labor commissioner candidate whose district saw a spike of more than 45,000 clients losing power. “If the power goes out, you have no heat, no food, no fuel or medicine, people are unsafe.”

Moss is in the process of drafting legislation, obtained in its draft form by The The Bharat Express News, that will require utilities to provide 24-hour security at substations, which convert high-voltage electricity to the lower voltages that power communities. Security features may vary by location, with some already sealed with cameras nearby, while others are more visible.

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He sees the bill as “a conversation starter” among legislators, utilities and security experts to help the General Assembly identify cost-effective defenses that would not drive up consumer prices.

His call for increased oversight comes as questions linger over the Moore County shootings. The FBI is still seeking information and no arrests have been made.

Employees work on equipment at the West End Substation in North Carolina, on Dec. 5, 2022, where a severe attack on critical infrastructure left many residents without power.
(TBEN Photo/Karl B DeBlaker, File)

Federal regulators in December ordered a review of physical security standards across the country’s vast electrical transmission network following the North Carolina attacks. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees the country’s bulk power system, has until early April to submit a report and recommend possible improvements.

Manny Cancel, a NERC senior vice president and the CEO of the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center, said the situation requires more communication and collaboration between the various levels of government, industry leaders and law enforcement.

“The frequency has increased, the targeting has increased,” Cancel said. “What we’ve seen are patterns of clusters…or assets that are in close proximity to each other and are repeatedly attacked.”

Utilities in South Carolina — where gunshots were fired near a Duke Energy facility but caused no damage days after the North Carolina shootings — are asking lawmakers to increase fines for deliberately destroying electrical infrastructure or other utility property.

A state Senate proposal would set a sliding scale based on how much damage was done — if it costs more than $25,000 to repair equipment and cover losses, the perpetrator could face up to 20 years in prison, double the current maximum of 10 years.

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A maximum sentence of 25 years would apply if someone died or their health was endangered by a resulting malfunction.

Dominion Energy South Carolina President Keller Kissam said the state saw at least 12 incidents last year where people deliberately damaged equipment.

“You want to demoralize people, you put them in limbo,” he said.

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Some senators feared the law could be used against hunters who accidentally damage utility equipment. Kissam agreed, but sometimes said that damage is not an accident, as hunters use gear to aim their gun or for target practice. A subcommittee plans to take a further look at the bill in a few weeks.

Another South Carolina bill seeks tougher penalties for destruction specifically caused by a gun or explosive device.

Brian Harrell, former deputy secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said while tougher penalties for equipment sabotage may act as a deterrent, state lawmakers can best support utilities by freeing up money for additional security measures.

“Specifically, provide money for perimeter security, cameras, and alarms,” ​​said Harrell, who now oversees security for a multi-state energy company.

Building all the new security features would cost about $2.5 million per site, he said. But many substations already have fencing, which significantly reduces costs. About $800,000 can equip a single substation with pan-tilt-zoom cameras, intrusion detection, and an access control system.

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The Pacific Northwest has become a hot spot for these physical attacks, with utilities in Washington and Oregon reporting at least 15 incidents in 2022, including 10 in the last two months of the year.

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Attackers hit four substations in Washington on Christmas Day, forcing entry, setting fire to equipment and temporarily cutting power for thousands of customers.

Michael Furze, director of the Washington State Energy Office, said that while no legislation specifically related to substation security has been introduced, broader bipartisan discussions are underway about grid resilience.

Washington is already revamping its electrical infrastructure under the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which commits the state to zero greenhouse gas emissions electricity by 2045. Physical and cybersecurity updates are in the works as the power grid undergoes major changes to meet new standards said Furze.

“‘Security by design’ is a core component of these systems,” he said.

In neighboring Oregon, the state’s Public Utility Commission is working with regulated utilities to increase vigilance and investigate possible security updates after gunfire damaged two substations southeast of Portland in late November. Spokesperson Kandi Young said the committee is following the proposed legislation and is not aware of any related bills introduced this session.

And in Nevada, where a man set fire to a solar power unit this month, a search of 138 pre-submitted bills found none that explicitly addressed electrical infrastructure security. But with more than two weeks until the start of the biennial session, most legislative proposals have yet to be formally tabled.

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