We’ve all seen it play out in the movies: the designated bad guys deploy their choice of deviant device — complex cyber hacking, a strategically placed bomb, or other stealth weapon — and poof! It’s lights out across the power grid for some unfortunate and unassuming city, leaving the aforementioned bad guys to wreak their desired havoc in the dark.
Cut to April 16, 2013, and the scenario unfolded like this — one or more people methodically severed communication cables near a utility substation then sprayed more than 100 bullets (likely from AK-47 rifles), knocking out 17 of the station’s 23 transformers and fleeing without being apprehended.
The only difference was this incident didn’t occur on the big screen. Rather, the target was a Pacific Gas & Electric company facility near Silicon Valley, California.
Now the mysterious real-life sniper attack is underscoring concerns about the vulnerability of the country’s electrical grid and sparking debate over whether the shootout was actually an act of terrorism.
Although the FBI has been investigating the attack, the agency reveals there is no evidence of terrorism or any suspects. Yet Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time of the attack, said in an interview last week that he believes the incident “was, in essence, terrorism.” Wellinghoff suggested that the shooting could have been “a dry run” for an even bigger attack, noting that experts he brought in from the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren — who train Navy SEAL units — said they believed it was “a very professional, very well organized, well thought out and well-executed action that took place.”
As if the power grid didn’t already face significant vulnerability challenges — from Mother Nature’s wrath of hurricanes and ice storms, to pesky squirrels who somersault inside substations, to the grid’s own aging infrastructure —it appears yet another potential threat is now being added to the ever-growing list. But whether it’s deemed “terrorism” or “vandalism” remains to be seen.
Eaton’s annual Blackout Tracker logged 30 incidents of vandalism or theft that caused power outages in 2013, ranging from teenagers shooting at a power pole, to thieves stealing copper wire from substations, to burglars cutting power in order to commit a crime. While the Silicon Valley shooting certainly differs from these events, at this point it’s tough to determine whether the incident falls into the same category, or merits a marquee warning in line with big screen terror plots.