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Experts eye ways to mitigate physical assaults on US power grid

Industry experts offered a range of ideas for how power system planners can help bolster physical grid security during an Aug. 10 technical conference hosted by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff.

The gathering, held jointly with staff of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., was convened following a sharp rise in physical attacks and thwarted attacks on electrical substations across the country.

"We remain in a heightened threat environment as lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs try to attack our substations," said Eric Rollison, assistant director of the US Energy Department's Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.

In a report filed with FERC in April, NERC noted that physical security incidents resulting in a measurable grid outage as of the end of 2022 had increased 71% since 2021 and 20% since 2020. Those include high-profile attacks on substations in North Carolina, which left 45,000 customers without power, as well as attacks in Washington state and California. In February, federal prosecutors filed charges against two Maryland individuals for conspiracy to destroy a substation in Baltimore.

Ken Seiler, head of transmission system planning for the PJM Interconnection LLC, said one of the most challenging aspects of protecting against future grid attacks is determining what risks to study and then deciding how to mitigate them.

"At the end of the day, we have to have some sort of communication as to what the risks are from both a cyber and physical security viewpoint, and we've got to translate those risks into some sort of contingency that we can then study and then decide, based on that risk to the system, what are we actually going to mitigate," Seiler said. "Otherwise, I think we're kind of just shooting in the dark."

Much of the day's discussion revolved around transmission facilities covered by NERC's CIP-014 reliability standard, which applies to transmission assets deemed "critical."

PJM is working to reduce the number of CIP-014 facilities throughout its 13-state mid-Atlantic footprint, Seiler noted. That can be done by establishing contingency plans so that if one substation goes down, power can quickly be redirected in a way that does not result in broad outages for customers, Seiler said.

"I think the goal is to actually have less [CIP-014 facilities]," Rollison added. "If you have less ... you're more resilient or robust against a variety of incidents."

Some traditional grid-hardening solutions, such as erecting higher fences with barbed wire around critical substations, may actually have a perverse effect, said Tracy McCrory, vice president of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

"One substation we went all-out on — not only was it unbelievable in cost, it looks like a target," McCrory said. "I feel like we made it more vulnerable because it's so obvious that it's important."

Daniel Sierra, a substation design engineer with Burns & McDonnell Inc., noted that manufacturers are now working with utilities to house substations in nondescript buildings fashioned after old warehouses.

"We can make them look terrible so people might not shoot at them," Sierra said. "We work with different clients on that front."

Kentucky Public Service Commission Chairman Kent Chandler noted that risks to the transmission system can also be mitigated through targeted investments at the distribution level.

"Sometimes things that are big and shiny are easier to get through," Chandler said. "Sometimes we'll approve a cheaper project because it will have less impact on rates, even if the more expensive project gives you the best bang for your buck."

Chandler said utility regulators are more inclined to approve grid-hardening investments when alternatives have been considered.

"The fact that tires were kicked on other alternatives and other options gives people in the seat that I sit in back home confidence that what is being proposed is the right answer," Chandler said.

On a related note, Rollison noted that the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law included $62 billion over five years to support "overall grid transformation" with $27 billion specifically dedicated to upgrading and modernizing the US transmission system. Those public investments are expected to spur an additional $100 billion in private spending on grid modernization over the next 10 years, Rollison said.

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