Regions Central Virginia

Federal regulators want new standards to protect physical security of America’s electric grid

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Print this page By Paula C. Squires

The physical security of America’s electric grid is becoming more urgent as a federal regulator orders new standards to address risks.

At two of Dominion Virginia Power’s electric substations in Dinwiddie and Hanover counties, a police presence was detected this week by nearby residents who told a local television station that they saw Virginia State troopers guarding the facilities.

FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) issued an order on March 7 for electric facility owners and operators to better address physical security threats to critical facilities, such as substations. FERC has directed the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) to come up with new mandatory reliability standards for the security of critical facilities by early June.  In the meantime, it is requiring physical security at the facilities.

“Because the grid is so critical to all aspects of our society and economy, protecting its reliability and resilience is a core responsibility of everyone who works in the electric industry,” FERC Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur said in a statement

Asked about the presence of state troopers at its substations, David Botkins, director of media relations and communications at Dominion Virginia Power, said, “Dominion has been moving forward with an enhanced substation security plan for several months. Although there has been no threat to our facilities, we opted to partner with law enforcement to monitor and protect our assets.  It helps them become familiar with our emergency response protocol and steps up a security presence as we continue implementing our plans.”

Dominion would not disclose details on how long law enforcement might be deployed, how many officers are involved or the cost of such measures.

The utility’s parent company, Richmond-based energy company Dominion Resources Inc., which has 2.4 million customers in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, said in February that it planned to spend as much as half a billion dollars over the next seven years to protect critical transmission substations against physical security threats.

It already is developing plans to build a new more secure operations center that would replace the current center at Innsbrook Corporate Center in Henrico County. Other security improvements, starting this year, would include anti-climb fences, some as tall as 20 feet, around substations. If regulators approve, the company would pass along the costs of the security improvements to its customers.

The issue came to the forefront last April when unknown gunmen attacked PG&E’s Metcalf substation near San Jose, Calif. They shot at 17 transformers for 19 minutes before fleeing to avoid police. While the facility sustained damage, the state avoided blackouts.

While the Metcalf substation is located near a freeway, other substations, like the one in Dinwiddie County, are in more remote areas.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that a recent analysis by FERC showed that the U. S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout for an extended time if nine of the country’s 55,000 electric-transmission substations were physically sabotaged on a hot summer day. That’s because some substations provide critical interconnections and play a large role in keeping electricity flowing across regions. 

While the U.S. has three regional power grids, the West, the East and Texas, they have limited connections and thus could not be that helpful to one another in the case of an emergency, according to the WSJ.

Currently, federal rules do not require utilities to protect substations except at nuclear plants, but it appears those standards will be updated.

As parts of its March 7 directive, FERC wants electric owners and operators to take three steps to protect physical security. First they must perform risk assessments to identify facilities that, if damaged, could have a critical impact on the grid’s operation through instability, uncontrolled separation or cascading failures.

Second, they must evaluate the potential threats and vulnerabilities to those facilities. Third, they are charged with implementing a security plan, with timeframes, to address any threats. FERC recognized that many operators already have taken steps to protect against security threats and said it was not looking to impose a “one size fits all” remedy.

However, it said in its order, “the current reliability standards do not specifically require entities to take steps to reasonably protect against physical security attacks on the bulk-power system.”

Since implantation of the order will require the gathering of sensitive information about critical facilities, one FERC Commissioner, John R. Norris, is urging Congress to grant an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act, so that the information can be exchanged between the federal agencies without fear of disclosure.

Norris also said in a concurring statement to the order that the U. S., while bolstering physical security, “should continue to equally focus our efforts and our resources on other threats to our nation’s grid, including cyber threats, geomagnetic disturbances, electromagnetic pulses and natural disasters.”


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