September 20, 2014

Substation Saboteurs ‘No Amateurs’

The saboteurs who shot up a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. substation in April were “very experienced marksmen,” a former PG&E executive told PJM’s Grid 20/20 conference Tuesday.

At least two gunmen were believed involved in the attack on PG&E’s Metcalf 500/230 kV substation near San Jose about 2 a.m. April 16.

Mark Johnson, formerly vice president of transmission operations for PG&E, said the gunmen targeted transformer radiators, firing an estimated 150 rounds. The gunmen hit 10 of 11 banks, causing a “slow bleed” resulting in the loss of 52,000 gallons of cooling oil.

The shooting occurred minutes after the suspects are believed to have cut underground fiber optic cables a half mile from the substation, briefly knocking out phone and 911 service in the area.

Surveillance video shows bullets hitting a chain link fence outside Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s Metcalf substation during an attack April 16.
Surveillance video shows bullets hitting a chain link fence outside Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Metcalf substation during an attack April 16.

“These were not amateurs taking potshots,” Johnson said. “…My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal” for future attacks.

The shooting prompted the California Independent System Operator to issue an alert asking residents in the region to cut their electricity use. (See Substation Sabotage Raises Concerns over NERC Alerts.)

It took nearly a month to replace the radiators and return the substation to normal operations.

“It clearly demonstrates that a chain link fence is not enough to secure a substation,” Johnson said. “Obviously solid perimeters would be nice but that can be very expensive.”

The incident also indicated a need to reconsider the deployment of security cameras, which are typically aimed down the fence line to spot trespassers. “If we had cameras looking out we might have seen the perpetrators,” he said.

Officials believe more than one person was involved because of the number of shots fired and because of the logistics of getting into the manhole to cut the fiber optic lines, Johnson said.

He declined to say afterward whether the suspects are believed to be present or former utility employees, acknowledging “wide speculation” on that question.

The incident underscored a risk raised last year by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.  Wellinghoff told Bloomberg News that he feared saboteurs with guns could target transformers. Transformers are often custom built and can take 18 to 36 months to replace, Wellinghoff said.

3 Responses to Substation Saboteurs ‘No Amateurs’

  1. […] Commissioners John Norris and Philip Moeller made statements at last week’s meeting in response to news articles earlier this month reporting on Wellinghoff’s concerns about the April 2013 sniper attack on a PG&E substation near Metcalf, Calif. The former chairman called the attack “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid” to date. (RTO Insider provided an account of the attack based on a presentation at PJM’s Grid 20/20 conference in November. See Substation Saboteurs ‘No Amateurs’) […]

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