A recent spate of attacks on electrical substations in North Carolina and other states has underscored the continued vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid, according to experts who warn that the power system has become a prime target for right-wing extremists.
Over the past three months, at least nine substations have been attacked in North Carolina, Washington state and Oregon, cutting power to tens of thousands of people. After those attacks, federal regulators ordered a review of security standards for the electrical system.
The FBI on Friday said that it was offering two $25,000 rewards for information that leads to the conviction of those responsible for shooting and damaging two substations in Moore County, North Carolina, on Dec. 3 and for shooting at another substation in Randolph County, North Carolina, on Jan. 17. The Moore County attack caused 45,000 people to lose power, some for five days.
Concerned about the sabotage, legislators in North Carolina, South Carolina and Arizona have introduced bills that would require 24-hour security at substations or toughen penalties for damaging them.
The proposals represent the latest efforts to protect the grid since 2013, when a sniper attack on a power station in California raised alarms across the industry. Experts say that it inspired others to plot similar attacks.
Because they house transformers that transfer power from region to region, the tens of thousands of substations across the country represent the most vulnerable nodes in the nation’s vast electrical grid, said Jon Wellinghoff, a former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
While federal rules require utilities to periodically review security at the most critical substations, many smaller substations in rural areas remain protected by little more than chain-link fencing, security cameras and lighting, Wellinghoff said. That leaves them vulnerable to rifle attacks, he said.
Wellinghoff said he was worried about more shootings like the one in Moore County as well as larger plots against a “finite number” of substations nationwide, which, if disabled, would knock out power in half the country.
“The risk is continued disruption of our economic system in our country — not only that, but there’s also lives at stake,” Wellinghoff said, noting that people rely on electricity for heat and medical equipment.
Manny Cancel, CEO of the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a clearinghouse for information about threats against the electrical system, said that cyberattacks were more likely to cause widespread outages than guns and explosives.
“I do think there is a level of protection, of resilience, that’s built into the grid,” Cancel said. The question is, he said, “Is there more that we should do?”
While regulators have long worried about terrorism at substations, there is concern among national security officials and researchers that the stations have become attractive targets for right-wing extremists in particular.
From 2016 to 2022, white supremacist plots targeting energy systems “dramatically increased in frequency,” according to a study released in September by researchers at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Over that period, 13 people associated with white supremacist movements were charged in federal courts with planning attacks on the energy sector, the study said, and 11 of those defendants were charged after 2020.
The study attributed the targeting of the energy sector to the rise of “accelerationism,” a term white supremacists have adopted to describe their desire to hasten the collapse of society.
“The goal is to create chaos, to spread confusion and damage systems that are vital to the U.S.,” said Ilana Krill, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism and a co-author of the study.
In February 2022, three men pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to a planned attack on substations after they had “conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause war, even a race war, and induce the next Great Depression,” the Justice Department said.
That same month, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin warned that domestic violent extremists had recently aspired to disrupt electrical and communications systems as “a means to create chaos and advance ideological goals.”
While most of the warnings have focused on right-wing extremists, a man who was convicted of firing a rifle at a Utah substation in 2016 told a confidential witness that he wanted to “destroy industrial capitalism” and to “do millions of dollars of damage to the fossil fuel industry,” court documents show.
Authorities have not arrested anyone or identified any motive in the shooting at the substations in Moore County, which forced schools to close and prompted some residents to warm their hands over barrel fires.
“It was just a very dreary look when you had no lights and no businesses open,” Ben T. Moss Jr., a Republican state representative whose district includes Moore County, said in an interview. “It was almost something out of a horror movie.”
In January, two men were charged in connection with attacks on four substations in Washington state on Dec. 25 that left more than 7,000 people without power.
Authorities said the men wanted to give themselves cover to burglarize a local business — a plot that did not suggest any larger ideological motive. They caused the outages by manipulating breakers and tampering with switches, according to court documents.
Although experts said it would be impractical to assign a security guard or build a 20-foot wall around every substation in the country, some recommended gunshot detectors, motion sensors and opaque fencing to block a gunman’s line of sight.
Moss, who has introduced legislation calling for more security at substations in North Carolina, said the attacks there should concern everyone.
“You’re not immune to this,” he said, adding that when the power goes out “everyone is affected.”