On April 16, 2013, unknown attackers opened fire on a massive Pacific Gas and Electric substation located in a remote part of Metcalf, California. At approximately 1:00 AM PST, attackers disabled AT&T telephone cables in an underground vault leading to the facility. Close by, another vault containing cabling for an internet service provider was sabotaged, and lines cut. About 30 minutes later, at least two gunmen (based on 120 recovered 7.62 x 39mm shell casings and the location of muzzle flashes seen on video) methodically sprayed the substation with gunfire, knocking out 17 large transformers which provided power to nearby Silicon Valley. Tellingly, all the recovered shell casings were devoid of fingerprints. By the time law enforcement arrived some 20 minutes later, the snipers were gone. The attack caused transformers in the substation to crash, and power to a wide area was briefly knocked out. For 27 days, crews labored to restore power and replace damaged equipment. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the attack was labeled “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the U.S. by Mr. Jon Wellinghoff, at the time chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Although a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in San Francisco did not link the attack to a terrorist organization, no arrests have been made – a decade later. Total damage was estimated at $15 million.

Following this massive attack, on December 4, 2015, President Obama signed the FAST Act (P.L. 114-94), which was designed to protect or restore the reliability of critical electric infrastructure during a grid security emergency. History would say it hasn’t helped much.

A Look at Recent Attacks

  • On May 10, 2019, Mr. Stephan McRae pled guilty to a 2016 substation attack, receiving 96 months in federal prison for one count of destruction of an energy facility in a case brought by the FBI. Mr. McRae admitted using his Springfield 30-40 Model 1898 rifle to fire shots into the cooling fins, rupturing the radiator piping. The resultant damage caused the substation to overheat and fail, costing nearly $400,000 to repair. As a part of the plea, Mr. McRae admitted he damaged other energy facilities, but for which he will not be charged.
  • On February 23, 2022, Mr. Christopher Cook, Mr. Jonathan Frost, and Mr. Jackson Sawall pled guilty to a plot to attack the power grid, and on April 21, 2023, Cook was sentenced to 92 months in federal prison, while Mr. Frost received a term of 60 months. (Mr. Sawall has yet to be sentenced.) The FBI arrested the trio on charges of providing material support to terrorism. The men, all in their early twenties, were documented white supremacists. According to the press release, “[T]hese three defendants admitted to engaging in a disturbing plot, in furtherance of white supremacist ideology, to attack energy facilities in order to damage the economy and stoke division in our country.” As part of the conspiracy, each defendant was assigned a substation in a different region of the U.S., with the plan being to attack with rifles. The men believed, according to their plea agreement, that their plan would cost the government millions of dollars and cause unrest for Americans in the region. They also had conversations about how the possibility of power being out for months could spark a race war and cause another Great Depression.
  • On December 4, 2022, unknown shooters in Moore County, North Carolina, attacked two electric substations, blasting them with rifle fire, causing an estimated millions in damage, and leaving more than 45,000 without power for days. The FBI offered a reward of $25,000 for information leading to the conviction of the perpetrator(s)
  • On December 25, 2022, four substations were attacked in Graham, Washington. While firearms were not the weapon of choice in these attacks, the saboteurs nevertheless caused damage to the substations in excess of $3 million, knocking out power for 7000 customers. Matthew Greenwood and Mr. Jeremy Crahan were arrested on January 3, 2023 for the damage and charged with conspiracy to damage energy facilities, although they claimed they staged the attack to cover up a planned burglary, and not for ideological reasons.
  • On Feb 6, 2023, Ms. Sarah Clendaniel and Mr. Brandon Russell were arrested on federal charges of plotting to attack multiple energy substations with the goal of damaging Baltimore, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. Russell was the founder of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen, and was on federal probation when the attack occurred. The special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore division stated both of the would be attackers “had extremist views.”
  • On August 8, 2023, Randy Vail was indicted on federal charges of destruction of an energy facility, where he is alleged to have used a rifle in June 2023 to attack the Hells Canyon Dam and Brownlee Dam hydroelectric power stations, causing over $100,000 in damage along with “significant interruption and impairment of a function of the facilities” according to the press release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Idaho.

More Attacks or More Attention?

Is this part of an actual increase in attacks or is more attention simply being paid to the issue? According to a September 2022 study from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, between 2016 to 2022, white supremacist plots targeting energy systems “dramatically increased in frequency.” Researchers found 94 federal cases charging individuals with planning to conduct violent extremist attacks, and more than a third of them (35), were planning to or did attack critical infrastructure systems. 19 of the adjudicated federal cases are associated with the Salafi-jihadist movement, while 16 of the defendants were white supremacists. Of the 16 white supremacists, 13 were charged for planning attacks on power facilities during the examined time frame, with a shocking 11 of 13 defendants charged after 2020.

The Department of Homeland Security seems attuned to the threat, issuing a National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin on February 7, 2022 warning that, among other targets, domestic violent extremists are interested in targeting the power grid. Not surprisingly, the FBI (the federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over such grid attacks) is also closely following threat streams. In November 2022, FBI Headquarters and later the Norfolk field office warned of an increase of “threats to electrical infrastructure” from what the FBI described as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVE). The FBI characterized these actors as white supremacists and other so-called “accelerationists” who would try to cause mayhem. Specifically, the bulletin noted “[the] FBI has received reports of threats to electrical infrastructure by threat actors who espouse RMVE ideology to create civil disorder and inspire further violence.”

In December 2022, following the North Carolina attack, the aforementioned FERC directed a study be done by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to reassess existing security rules and determine what can be done about the problem. While this sounds promising, the NERC has no actual authority to compel energy providers to do anything.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), while lacking law enforcement jurisdiction over non-DOE affiliated facility attacks, nonetheless tracks power infrastructure reports from states. In a review done by USA Today covering from 2014 to present, DOE noted 723 of what they call “human-related disturbances and unusual incidents” at U.S. electrical facilities, with the number of attacks topping 100 in 2022 for the first time, and it appears that 2023 will be even worse.

Looking specifically at more direct action, the numbers are foreboding. According to 2023 data released by the DOE and highlighted in a recent Politico article, attacks and threats against the nation’s grid doubled in the first quarter of 2023, and the same DOE data indicate that to date, nine attacks from 2023 have resulted in actual losses of electrical power. Looking back over the last three years, in 2022 there were 26 incidents of what DOE labels “actual physical attack” or “sabotage.” In 2021 the number was 8, and in 2020 the number was 9. Clearly, this trend warrants concern.