Attack on two electrical substations in North Carolina

Lots of people talk about domestic terrorism (frequently in a hyperbolic fashion), but North Carolina experienced something this weekend that certainly seems like it would qualify for the label. In Moore County, someone shot up two electrical substations on Saturday night. The attack took out the local power grid, plunging tens of thousands of homes into darkness and shutting down government services and schools. A state of emergency has been declared, and it could be days until the power is restored. Thankfully, the temperatures in that region aren’t expected to dip below freezing this week, but the disruption to everyone’s lives will still be significant.

“An attack like this on critical infrastructure is a serious, intentional crime and I expect state and federal authorities to thoroughly investigate and bring those responsible to justice,” Gov. Roy Cooper wrote on Twitter.

The FBI is working with local and county law enforcement to investigate the crime. A spokesman for Duke Energy issued a statement advising residents that the repair work will be a “multi-day operation” and that people should be prepared for a significant disruption. An inspection of the substation revealed that a security gate had been broken down and a perimeter fence pole had been snapped off at ground level.

This is an alarming development because it exposes a significant vulnerability that exists all over the country. (And across the world, really.) The power grid is divided up into sectors centered around the many power generating stations. Each of them feeds electricity to a cascading series of substations that step down the flow of electricity and supply the local blocks of power lines. (That’s why you’ll notice several blocks of buildings going dark when a car takes out one of the local transformers.)

The power plants themselves tend to be manned around the clock and have significant security measures in place, particularly nuclear plants. But the substations don’t typically have much in the way of security. They employ massive transformers that contain huge coils of shielded electrical wire. Those transformers are not generally heavily armored. As was seen in North Carolina on Saturday, a person with a rifle can pump a few rounds into one of them causing an electrical short that will effectively destroy the transformer, cutting off power to a large portion of the surrounding area. Repairing or replacing one of those primary transformers is a time-consuming and expensive process.

Particularly in the northeast and midwest, where it gets very cold in the winter, losing electricity for extended periods of time will leave many people’s homes without heat, and local businesses, schools, and other operations will be shut down. An attack like this one is a cheap and simple way to bring much of society to a screeching halt until the repairs can be completed.

If this gives other anarchists ideas, the utility companies will be forced to try to implement expensive security measures. There are simply too many substations around the country to have the police monitoring them at all times. There are more than 55,000 substations spread across the United States and the FERC recognizes that an attack on the nine largest ones could wipe out power to almost the entire country. Those nine huge stations are already fairly well guarded, but the smaller ones that provide juice to individual counties are not. Sadly, we clearly have no shortage of crazy people in America these days, so we’re going to need to move quickly to address this security issue.

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