GREENSBORO — Recent attacks on substations in two North Carolina counties have officials in the Triad and across the state calling for better protection of the power grid.
Local communities are also turning their focus to emergency preparedness as incidents of such attacks become more frequent.
Trey Davis, an assistant city manager who oversees public safety in Greensboro, said he began addressing concerns after 45,000 homes and businesses in Moore County lost power in early December when two substations were damaged by gunfire. Many were without electricity for at least four days as Duke Energy made repairs.
“The biggest concern is how do we prepare the community to continue living in these circumstances without power?” Davis asked. “With weather events, you have days to prepare. With this, you don’t have time to prepare.”
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In early December, authorities said one or more people drove to the Duke Energy substations in Moore County, breached their gates and opened fire.
Restaurants and resorts suffered financial losses.
Families lived without heat. Many had to replace costly groceries in their refrigerators and freezers.
Barely a month later, another attack. This time, it was a substation in Thomasville. No power outages occurred. But there didn’t need to be for local, state and federal officials to get the message.
This is a problem.
But it’s been that way for the last year.
Attacks on U.S. power grids rose to an all-time high in 2022, according to data from the Department of Energy.
The number of physical attacks, including acts of vandalism and other suspicious activity that potentially threatened grid reliability, rose 77% to 163 in 2022 from the previous year.
Attacks on substations, which are responsible for lowering high-voltage power so that it can be delivered safely to homes, have shown how vulnerable communities are when that infrastructure is targeted.
Across the Triad, Duke Energy has more than 100 substations of different sizes and functions to serve customers. It’s not clear how the area would be affected if one or more were seriously damaged.
But it probably wouldn’t be good.
“Typically our infrastructure is scaled to meet the number and type of customers we serve. So the more people and more need for electricity, the more power lines and substations you need to serve the area,” Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said. “There will naturally be more infrastructure, including substations, in urban areas than in smaller cities/towns and rural areas. And that is the case in places like the Triad, Charlotte and the Triangle.”
As far as the Triad’s vulnerability to such attacks, Brooks declined to speculate.
“Our goal is to prevent them from happening in the first place and we are working to add lessons learned from Moore County to further strengthen our existing security strategy,” Brooks said.
Local officials are, among other things, looking at how to prioritize which facilities need backup generators in the event of a longer power outage.
Meanwhile, Guilford County Sheriff’s deputies have been asked to conduct frequent checks of local substations.
“How do we maintain safety, and how do we get our messaging out?” said Davis, adding that being able to quickly communicate updates from city and county officials to residents is a top priority.
Cone Health also is reviewing its emergency preparedness plans after the Moore County incident.
“We have closely followed the actions of our colleagues at Moore Regional and the rest of First Health as they dealt with the power outage. At the very least it provides us an opportunity to again think through our plans,” spokesman Doug Allred said.
Cone Health has a variety of contingencies that include prolonged and widespread power outages. Cone Health’s hospitals and many of its larger facilities could continue providing care because of on-site generators.
“We have food, water and supplies prepositioned in many facilities and larger stockpiles close by,” Allred said.
At the state level, Gov. Roy Cooper has addressed the attacks and the importance of protecting critical infrastructure.
“Any attack on infrastructure is a serious crime and needs full investigation along with a complete assessment of how we prevent and mitigate these attacks in the future,” Sam Chan, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement to the News & Record. “Similar attacks nationwide show the importance of smart investments to protect energy facilities and improve their resilience in the event of damage.”
Republican state Rep. Ben Moss, whose district includes part of Moore County, is urging his colleagues to take action — and late last week, they did.
In legislation filed by Senate Republicans, punishments would get tougher for intentionally damaging utility equipment. The measure would make it a high-grade felony to intentionally destroy or damage any “energy facility” or attempt to do so. The proposed bill is meant to replace a current state law that makes it a misdemeanor to vandalize electrical equipment.
Conviction of a felony like the one envisioned in the proposal would result in prison terms of up to roughly 10 years. For people with lengthy criminal records, those sentences could be even longer.
A similar proposal offered in South Carolina would set a sliding scale on prison time based on how much damage is done, with a maximum 25-year penalty if anyone died or their health was endangered by an outage.
“The substation attacks left my constituents without many things: electricity, heat, refrigeration for vital medications — but most of all, it left them without much hope,” Moss said in a statement, emphasizing that investigators have yet to determine who was responsible for the attacks.
“Without even basic security camera footage, our law enforcement officers don’t have much to go on.”
Moss says that’s why he authored House Bill 21 — the Energy Security Act of 2023 — which requires public utilities to provide security systems for substations to protect the power grid.
“People’s lives depend on it,” Moss explained. “It’s not a partisan issue. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter: When the power goes out, everybody loses.”
In mid-December, on the heels of the Moore County incident, Duke executives found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to brief state officials. Since then, Brooks said the utility “will continue to update them on the ongoing investigation and our own security analysis from the event.”
Brooks said Duke is working with federal, state and local investigators as they try to identify those responsible for the attacks.
So far, though, no suspects have been named. Or more important: a motive. That makes it difficult to classify what happened in Moore County and Thomasville as vandalism or something more nefarious — like domestic terrorism.
Regardless of the intent, federal officials in recent weeks say the North Carolina attacks coupled with a nationwide spike over the past year has exposed the fragility of the U.S. power grid.
“We know how important electricity is to our customers and communities. That’s why protecting the electric grid and maintaining reliable, resilient service is a top commitment for Duke Energy,” Brooks said.
Smaller utilities across the state are getting some help in that area. Last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the agency is investing $235 million to help seven North Carolina electric cooperatives and utilities expand and modernize the state’s rural electric grid and increase security.
Randolph Electric Membership Cooperative in Asheboro — serving residents in Alamance, Chatham and Davidson counties among others — is receiving a $32 million loan to build and improve 426 miles of line.
For Duke Energy, it’s unknown how much the company may spend to enhance service and security. Brooks said the company’s security strategy is always evolving, taking lessons from every event to improve it.
“We also continue to make improvements to strengthen the grid to make it more resistant to outages from severe weather and protect against physical and cyber threats,” Brooks said.
Brooks said the Charlotte-based company can’t provide specifics on security improvements, emphasizing “it is top of mind for the company.”