Target 11: Domestic extremists targeting your electricity. Can it happen here?

Our whole lives revolve around it: To keep us warm, to keep our food cold, for communication, you name it.

The problem? Some domestic extremists know that and are targeting the electric power grid.

For example, Dec. 3, 2022 in Moore County, North Carolina, two power substations were attacked by gunfire, the bullets damaging the transformers. More than 40,000 people lost power, many of them for days. Law enforcement is still investigating the incident.

A few weeks later in Tacoma, Washington, 20,000 residents suddenly lost power from four substations. Transformers at some locations were damaged, but this time surveillance cameras videoed two men entering the properties. Both were arrested and charged with “Conspiracy to Damage Energy Facilities.”

“This is a national problem and we’re seeing power stations in the country get vandalized and attacked,” U.S. prosecutor Nick Brown told KIRO-TV.

Jon Wellinghoff agrees. He was the chairperson of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama.

“I think it’s one of the most significant threats we have currently,” Wellinghoff said. “We’ve seen people have this willingness to actually go after infrastructure in a way they never would before.”

Case in point, that’s allegedly the case with Sarah Beth Clendaniel.

On Feb. 2, 2023, the federal government accused Clendaniel and a Florida man of being Neo-Nazis and planning online to attack transformers in Baltimore, Maryland. In the indictment, both were charged with “Conspiracy to Damage Energy Facilities.”

In the government charges, the U.S. prosecutor said that Clendaniel said that she hoped the plan “would completely destroy this whole city.”

Professor Granger Morgan teaches at the Carnegie Mellon Department of Engineering and Public Policy, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the H. John Heinz III College.

“A small number of attackers who knew what they were doing could do a very serious job on the U.S. power system,” Morgan told Channel 11 Investigative Reporter Rick Earle.

Professor Morgan also said that just replacing a damaged transformer can be problematic.

“Most of them are custom made,” he said. “Many are no longer made in this country. So they have to be imported from abroad and there are long backloads.”

As a result, that can potentially mean that in some situations getting your power back can take days or even weeks.

Channel 11 teamed up with our sister-stations across the country as part this investigative report and visited local power stations here and in seven states. We wanted to see conditions there and how protected, or exposed, the public is.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, WSOC Investigative reporter Madison Carter visited a Duke Power substation one evening. At one location, Carter and her photographer found high fences, cameras, and a guard booth, they didn’t see a guard.

However, someone at the plant noticed the light from their flashlights and notified police.

“I just have people with spotlights walking around my back gates” he told a dispatcher over the phone. Then he noticed that the lights seemed to be leaving the property and later added “There’s no emergency.”

In Tacoma, Washington, where 20,000 people lost power last Christmas, KIRO-TV reporter Linzi Sheldon also visited power stations. In one case, it didn’t take long for the police to show up and question them.

“I guess you’re filming,” said the officer.

“Yes” explained Sheldon. “We’re from Power 7 News. We’re doing a story on substations.”

However, when Channel 11 visited some power stations in Allegheny County, we found most had no cameras and no guard. Often, they were surrounded by a chain link fence that was locked with a pad lock.

Wellinghoff says there is a vulnerability with those fences.

“You have line of sight through a fence,” he said.

In other words, all it would take is a rifle and good aim.

“You don’t even need to get inside the substation,” he said. “You don’t need to cut a lock; you don’t need to actually breach a fence. You can shoot through a fence into the substation.”

At one substation in Mt. Lebanon, the power equipment was surrounded by a brick wall and a locked gate. However, the chain and lock that were supposed to stop anyone from driving onto the property was unlocked and down. As a result, we easily had “line of sight” through that barred gate.

At one substation we visited, there were a wealth of protective devices.

Located in Oakland, the Riazzi substation had cameras, concrete walls, anti-scale fencing, and no easy way to get on the property.

After our visits, Channel 11 contacted the owner of the above power substations, Duquesne Light Company, for comment.

Their communications manager declined to provide someone to do an on-camera interview with us, but sent us a statement:

Duquesne Light Company (DLC) continues to carefully monitor the recent substation attacks that have occurred in different areas around the country. The safety of our employees and customers is always our top priority. In close partnership with local law enforcement, city officials and other agencies, we are working to maintain the protection of our critical infrastructure, the integrity of our grid and the reliability of service that we have a responsibility to provide to customers every day. DLC continually conducts threat assessments with input from local, state and federal experts, law enforcement and other utilities while consistently employing best practices and implementing strategies to strengthen our preventative defense and response capabilities. We strongly encourage our customers and the public to immediately report any suspicious activity, including vehicles near substations or other critical infrastructure, to local law enforcement.

An analysis of U.S. Department of Energy figures shows that in 2022, Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation for states reporting the most incidents of substations either attacked, vandalized, sabotaged, or reporting suspicious activity. The amount was 10 reports. Washington state and Texas tied for third and second place with 20 such reports. California had the most reported incidents in the country for that year with 41.

The total amount for the U.S. in 2022 was 189 reports to the DOE, with some incidents covering multiple states.

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