Across the West, the legislative focus has been on deterrence rather than mandates on security procedures.

By Ted Case

Fred Flippence, general manager of Harney Electric Cooperative, dealt with a substation attack on his first day on the job in 2016. Photo by Jason Hill

They are the consummate soft targets: 55,000 utility substations, scattered across U.S. cities, rural roads and suburban neighborhoods, usually guarded by little more than a chain-link fence and a sternly worded warning sign.

Because of their importance and vulnerability, utility substations are being increasingly targeted by saboteurs who range across the political spectrum. And state legislatures are paying attention.

“There has been a material uptick in incidents affecting the grid,” Scott Aaronson, a grid security expert with Edison Electric Institute, told an Oregon legislative committee this past session.

While the December 2022 high-profile attack on 2 Duke Energy substations in North Carolina garnered national attention, several Western states have recently experienced similar—albeit less publicized—incidents.

These attacks on critical utility infrastructure—some of which knocked out power for thousands of customers— have compelled several state legislatures, such as Oregon’s, to stiffen penalties against those who attempt to bring down the electric grid.

This session, the Oregon Legislature passed HB 2722 to define a domestic terrorist as someone who “intentionally destroys or substantially damages critical infrastructure.”

Carolyn Turner, executive director of the Nevada Rural Electric Association, reported her association spearheaded Assembly Bill 321 “in response to the troubling rise in attacks on utility personnel and infrastructure across the nation.” The bill enhances criminal penalties for destruction of utility infrastructure while giving the utility authority to bring civil action against the perpetrator to recoup the cost of damages.

The Utah Rural Electric Cooperative Association supported legislation that could lead to long sentences for those who destroy critical infrastructure facilities. Included are criminal penalties for impersonating a utility official.

Notably, electric cooperatives in both Nevada and Utah experienced a rash of substation attacks in 2016.

Fred Flippence, general manager of Harney Electric Cooperative, which serves parts of Oregon and Nevada, had a bracing first day on the job in 2016 when Harney’s Quinn River Substation was sabotaged by someone with a rifle.

Members of the Nevada Rural Electric Association gather with their bill sponsor, Assemblyman Max Carter, first row, second from left. Photo courtesy of NREA.

Through a chance encounter, Flippence learned another Nevada cooperative had also been sabotaged. This connection led law enforcement officials to use cellphone records and soil samples to arrest Stephen McRae, who admitted to shooting four substations. He was convicted in Utah after telling a confidential witness that he “wanted to destroy industrial capitalism” and “do millions of dollars of damage to the fossil fuel industry.”

While McRae’s conviction was a victory for law enforcement, other attacks on utility infrastructure remain unsolved. The saboteurs of the Duke Energy substations remain at large, as do the perpetrators of perhaps the most notorious attack on utility infrastructure: the masked sniper attack on PG&E’s Metcalf Substation.

The shooting in 2013 lasted 19 minutes and surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers, leading Jon Wellinghoff, then-chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to claim it was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.”

The motives of those sabotaging critical infrastructure range across the political spectrum and are not limited to those making a political statement.

2 men from Washington state were arrested for Christmas Day 2022 attacks on four electric substations. Several thousand customers lost power for several hours, and court documents indicated the men initiated the blackout to commit burglaries at local businesses.

While conversations on how to protect critical infrastructure continue at the highest level, state legislatures have managed to steer away from mandating standards on utilities.

“Putting guns, guards and gates around every piece of utility infrastructure is not the most reasonable approach to defend it,” Edison Electric Institute’s Scott Aaronson testified before the Oregon Legislature.

“If we mandate utility companies to put a 10-foot fence around everything, the adversary will just bring a 12-foot ladder.”

Instead of mandating the 10-foot fence, state legislatures across the West have focused on getting tough on those who sabotage critical infrastructure.

Law enforcement officials have conceded that many of these saboteurs have proved to be elusive, but those who are caught will receive harsh penalties intended to deter practices that leave customers in the dark, utilities with millions of dollars in damages and a sense that the powerful electric grid is powerless against those with a mask and a rifle.