Wellinghoff’s Words on Substation Attack Shock Some; no Secret to Utility Industry

A Wall Street Journal article has catapulted utilities’ physical security into the limelight and created a stir on Capitol Hill.

In the article by Rebecca Smith, Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Jon Wellinghoff called the sniper attack on Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Metcalf substation “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid the country has ever seen.” Seventeen transformers and six circuit breakers were damaged by bullets similar to those fired by an AK-47, causing $15.4 million in damage.

According to the article called “U.S. Risks National Blackout From Small-scale Attack,” FERC research indicates that destroying only nine key transformers of the nations’ more than 55,000 could take down the entire grid for weeks or even months.

Wellinghoff’s contribution to the article didn’t go unnoticed by some on Capitol Hill. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sent a letter asking the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General to investigate who leaked “highly sensitive, narrowly distributed FERC documents” about grid security to the Wall Street Journal. In addition, Murkowski on March 27 called Wellinghoff’s statements “sensational” from the Senate floor.

Wellinghoff, in an interview published the next day with Politico Morning Energy, said information shared with the Wall Street Journal was not classified but came from a FERC grid security study that he and FERC Infrastructure Security Chief Joe McClelland shared with hundreds of utility, administration and Capitol Hill folks last year. He said much of the information had been in literature for years, and the study simply confirmed it.

In addition, Morning Energy reported Wellinghoff said he is unsure whether nine is an accurate number; it could be eight or 15. The point is not the exact number, he said, but that the number is small. He stressed the point in the Wall Street Journal, as well.

“There are probably less than 100 critical high-voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Wellinghoff.

Maybe this new attention from politicians will create more challenges, or maybe it will convince regulators that grid owners and operators need adequate funding for grid protection.

While Capitol Hill folks argue about who said what and what is “highly sensitive,” utilities will keep working to meet security challenges, as well as other challenges that can interrupt the flow of electrons.

TERESA HANSEN   Editor in chief
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