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Officials suspect the 2013 attack on PG&E Metcalf substation could be a “dress rehearsal” for a larger electric-grid attack to come

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PG&E Metcalf substation terrorist attackThe Wall Street Journal released a stunning report yesterday revealing that on April 16 of last year, what looks to be a coordinated terrorist attack on the nations’ electric grid, took place in Los Angeles, California.  Originally reported as an “act of vandalism”, many officials are now coming out and admitting that the attack against a PG&E substation could be a dress rehearsal for a larger electrical-grid attack to come.

Although details of the attack are of course, sketchy, what we do know is this.  The attack began just after midnight on April 16, 2013.  A group of men (experts say it would have required more than one man to conduct the attack) climbed through at least two different manholes to an underground AT&T utility bunker, located on Monterey Highway near the busy U.S. Highway 101 freeway and only a short distance away from a critical electrical substation in the area, and cut the telephone communication cables.  The fiber-optic communication lines were cut in such a way to make quick repair impossible.  A few minutes later, cables in a vault owned by Level 3 Communications were also cut.  Thirty minutes later, a group of attackers spent the next 20 minutes in and around a PG&E substation firing weapons (believed to be AK-47s) at 17 different transformers, critical components of the electrical grid in the area, located on a route that fed essential power to Silicon Valley and some of the largest technology companies on the planet (including Apple, Facebook, and Google).  The moment the police neared the area of the attack, the shooting stopped, and the assailants disappeared without a trace.

During the assault, power officials rerouted power around the damaged sites and increased the amount of electricity being produced at power plants to compensate for the disruption.  Had they not acted quickly, the entire area would have blacked out – and the grid would not have come back online quickly thereafter.  Utility workers required nearly a month to complete all repairs on the damaged electrical grid components.  Regardless, during the attack, some 911 services were knocked offline, landline service was cut, and cell phone service to the area was disrupted.

PG&E was quick to call the attack the work of “vandals” in their official press release.  But was it a terrorist attack?

After closed-door, high-level briefings were presented to federal agencies, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission noted:

“The attack was the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.”

Typical electric transformer at a electrical substationRetired PG&E Vice President Mark Johnson told a utility security conference:

“This wasn’t an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation. This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.”

In addition, experts from the U.S. Navy’s Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center in Virginia were flow in after the attack.  After walking the site with FBI agents, the military experts said the attack looked to be a coordinated “military style” professional job.

The Wall Street Journal noted how common it is for terrorist organizations to target electric grid components:

“Overseas, terrorist organizations were linked to 2,500 attacks on transmission lines or towers and at least 500 on substations from 1996 to 2006, according to a January report from the Electric Power Research Institute.”

Is this a case of focusing too much on cybersecurity attacks and missing what’s going on right in front of our faces?  Officials noted that in the PG&E Metcalf Substation attack, the attackers took great care to fire at the transformers’ oil-filled cooling systems which would “bleed oil” and slowly shut off the transformers while not causing a visible explosion as would have occurred if the internal components of the transformer had been targeted.  Investigators also pointed out that surveillance video caught what appeared to be “light signals” given prior to the initiation of the attack and seconds before the attack ceased.

And why did the attack miss public attention?  In addition to purposeful secrecy by corporate and federal officials, the attack occurred the day after the Boston Marathon bombings which of course, all media attention was focused on.

Additional notes

Suspect sought

One month after the attacks, a man dressed in all black was seen “lurking” near the substation.  A manhunt ensued with no results.  Below is the reward info:

“AT&T is offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case. Anyone with information for the Sheriff’s Office can contact investigators at 408-808-4431.”

Report from Foreign Policy

The following was reported by Foreign Policy and hints that the attacks were terrorist related.

“Around 1:00 AM on April 16, at least one individual (possibly two) entered two different manholes at the PG&E Metcalf power substation, southeast of San Jose, and cut fiber cables in the area around the substation. That knocked out some local 911 services, landline service to the substation, and cell phone service in the area, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy. The intruder(s) then fired more than 100 rounds from what two officials described as a high-powered rifle at several transformers in the facility. Ten transformers were damaged in one area of the facility, and three transformer banks — or groups of transformers — were hit in another, according to a PG&E spokesman.

Cooling oil then leaked from a transformer bank, causing the transformers to overheat and shut down. State regulators urged customers in the area to conserve energy over the following days, but there was no long-term damage reported at the facility and there were no major power outages. There were no injuries reported. That was the good news. The bad news is that officials don’t know who the shooter(s) were, and most importantly, whether further attacks are planned.”

Typical electric transformer at a electrical substationBloomberg report in the incident

The following was reported by Bloomberg the day after the event.  At this time it was being called an act of vandalism but reveals details about the attack which supports the current theory that the attack was an act of terrorism or a preface (practice run) for a larger attack.

“PG&E Corp. said gunshots damaged a substation in Silicon Valley, triggering an alert to conserve power in the region that is home to Apple Inc, Facebook Inc. and Google Inc.

PG&E’s Metcalf substation near San Jose was damaged by gunfire early this morning, Joe Molica, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based utility, said in a telephone interview. Multiple gunshots were reported in the vicinity of the station at 1:46 a.m., said Kurtis Stenderup, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.

Law enforcement officials are considering the incident an act of vandalism and will conduct a criminal investigation, Stenderup said in a telephone interview.

California Independent System Operator Corp., which operates the state grid, issued a “flex alert,” or an urgent call for conservation, for the San Jose area, particularly Silicon Valley and Santa Clara. Damaged equipment at the substation near San Jose will limit capacity on the grid, according to an e-mailed statement from the ISO.

“We’re looking for conservation now, from both residents and businesses,” Stephanie McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the operator in Folsom, California, said by telephone.

Silicon Valley, the southern region of the San Francisco Bay in Northern California, is home to six of the 10 biggest U.S. technology companies by sales, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Intel Corp., and thousands of startups. Companies in the area received 41 percent of U.S. venture investing last year, according to the National Venture Capital Association in Arlington, Virginia.”

Surveillance video

Below is an edited version of PG&E Metcalf Substation attack showing key segments in the surveillance video.  The surveillance video shows an area outside the substation where you’ll see sparks on the surrounding fence (where bullets struck) along with smoke from the transformers.

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