Bob Owens

The saddest truth in politics is that people get the leaders they deserve

I swear, you write one little post on how to bring down the electrical grid and you never hear the end of it…

Written By: Bob - Feb• 05•14

More than a year ago I wrote Shock the System, a brief description of the inherent fragility of the electrical grid. I thought nothing about it at the time, as the information I’d posted was common knowledge to anyone who had ever worked even on the fringes of public utilities, and attacking these systems has been part of military strategy dating back at least until the Second World War.

Nonetheless, I was immediately made aware of it when someone (or someones) in California decided to put some of those theories to the test in California some three months later in April of 2013.

For whatever reason, the story is in the news again today, which by my estimate, is at least the third time the story a been brought up since the attack took place. This time, they’re revealing a little more detail:

The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Smith reports┬áthat a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman is acknowledging for the first time that a group of snipers shot up a Silicon Valley substation for 19 minutes last year, knocking out 17 transformers before slipping away into the night.

The attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the U.S., Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, told Smith.

A blackout was avoided thanks to quick-thinking utility workers, who rerouted power around the site and asked power plants in Silicon Valley to produce more electricity. But the substation was knocked out for a month.

The FBI says it doesn’t believe a terrorist organization caused the attack but that it continues to investigate the incident.

Smith and colleague Tom McGinty assembled a detailed chronology of the attack that includes some amazing details, including more than 100 fingerprint-free shell casings similar to ones used by AK-47s that were found at the site and small piles of rocks that appeared to have been left by an advance scout to tell the attackers where to get the best shots.

A U.S. Navy investigation ordered by Wellinghoff determined “it was a targeting package just like they would put together for an attack,” he said.

Personally, I’m underwhelmed.

It sounds to me like authorities are fishing, dribbling out tidbits of information, perhaps hoping to track down who reads all the media coverage, hoping to narrow down a list of suspects… perhaps by taking an existing list of suspects and seeing which ones pour over the news stories of the attack to see if they’ve been compromised.


Nah. Couldn’t be.

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  1. bobby says:

    It was also written uo in December at

  2. bobby says:

    (Sorry about the previous comment being eaten)

    It was also written up in December in Foreign Policy magazine.

  3. bobby says:

    (Sorry for the long copy-paste, it seems as though FP has tossed this behind a registration wall. I wanted to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to read this.)

    ‘Military-Style’ Raid on California Power Station Spooks U.S

    When U.S. officials warn about “attacks” on electric power facilities these days, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a computer hacker trying to shut the lights off in a city with malware. But a more traditional attack on a power station in California has U.S. officials puzzled and worried about the physical security of the the electrical grid–from attackers who come in with guns blazing.
    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. “Initially, the attack was being treated as vandalism and handled by local law enforcement,” the senior intelligence official said. “However, investigators have been quoted in the press expressing opinions that there are indications that the timing of the attacks and target selection indicate a higher level of planning and sophistication.”
    The FBI has taken over the case. There appears to have been some initial concern, or at least interest, in the fact that the shooting happened one day after the Boston Marathon bombing. But the FBI has no evidence that the attack is related to terrorism, and it appears to be an isolated incident, said Peter Lee, a spokesman for the FBI field office in San Francisco, which is leading the investigation. Lee said the FBI has “a couple of leads we’re still following up on,” which he wouldn’t discuss in detail. There has not been any published motive or intent for the attack, the intelligence official said, and no one has claimed credit.
    Local investigators seemed to hit a dead end in June, so they released surveillance footage of the shooting. But that apparently produced no new information. The FBI says there have been no tips from the public about who the shooter might be and what he was doing there.
    The incident might have stayed a local news story, but this month, Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat and ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, mentioned it at a hearing on regulatory issues. “It is clear that the electric grid is not adequately protected from physical or cyber attacks,” Waxman said. He called the shooting at the the San Jose facility “an unprecedented and sophisticated attack on an electric grid substation with
    military-style weapons. Communications were disrupted. The attack inflicted substantial damage. It took weeks to replace the damaged parts. Under slightly different conditions, there could have been serious power outages or worse.”
    The U.S. official said the incident “did not involve a cyber attack,” but that’s about all investigators seem to know right now. AT&T, which operates the phone network that was affected, has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator or perpetrators.
    “These were not amateurs taking potshots,” Mark Johnson, a former vice president for transmission operations at PG&E, said last month at a conference on grid security held in Philadelphia. “My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal” for future attacks.
    At the very least, the attack points to an arguably overlooked physical threat to power facilities at a time when much of the U.S. intelligence community, Congress, and the electrical power industry is focused on the risk of cyber attacks. There has never been a confirmed power outage caused by a cyber attack in the United States. But the Obama administration has sought to promulgate cyber security standards that power facilities could use to minimize the risk of one.
    At least one senior official thinks the government is focusing too heavily on cyber attacks. Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said last month that an attack by intruders with guns and rifles could be just as devastating as a cyber attack.
    A shooter “could get 200 yards away with a .22 rifle and take the whole thing out,” Wellinghoff said last month at a conference sponsored by Bloomberg. His proposed defense: A metal sheet that would block the transformer from view. “If you can’t see through the fence, you can’t figure out where to shoot anymore,” Wellinghoff said. Price tag? A “couple hundred bucks.” A lot cheaper than the billions the administration has spent in the past four years beefing up cyber security of critical infrastructure in the United States and on government computer networks.
    “There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” Wellinghoff said. “I don’t think we have the level of physical security we need.”

  4. Tom Kelley says:

    Long ago in the IT world, data storage was failure critical. Almost as long ago, they started doing backups. More recently, but still a ways back, they came up with the idea of RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) storage to provide seamless access to the stored data, even when a disk failed. Redundant storage is now a fact of life in IT.

    The idea that here in the 21st century there is virtually no redundancy built into the national power grid borders on criminal negligence by the grid operators.

    • Phelps says:

      There’s plenty of redundancy. This isn’t like a single disk going down in a raid. This is like someone coming in with a pick axe and punch a hole in the middle of every drive individually.

      • Sharpshooter says:

        When I worked for a helicopter company that did military work, we mirrored our data at the plant, and at a remote site 1200 miles away.

  5. rd says:


    There is a lot of redundancy built into the grid in many states. You want more? Convince the state public utility commissions to demand, authorize, or allow the utilities to build it, and to be reimbursed for building it. The state PUC’s are run by political opportunists and greenies. They are more interested in building windmills and solar panels rather than transmission and distribution. God Forbid they ever approve a real, live, fossil fueled power plant.

    The utilities will be glad to build the redundancy you want. It cuts down on customer complaints, and makes life easier for their customers when Mother Nature gets nasty or things break. Just allow the utilities to have a reasonable return on the investment. (IOW, Don’t bitch if your power bill goes up 10-20%.)

    • Tom Kelley says:

      I spend more on data storage than I used to because I now have mission critical data. So what if the power bill goes up 20%, it’s the cost of modern life.

      The average household now spends exponentially more money on telecommunications utilities than it did a decade ago. Does a 7-year old really need more sophisticated mobile phone service than was available to most heads of state two decades ago?

      I’d say a more reliable grid is far more important than ensuring your kid can play candy crush or whatever it is this week.

      Compared to the cost of creating my own redundant power in the form of a generator and fuel supply, an extra 20% on the power bill is cheap.

  6. Oh, I remember that story. I recall I mocked the statement about someone “taking out” a transformer from 200 yds with a .22LR rifle. That’s pretty far for .22LR, it sounds like an ignorant gun-grabber talking. Also, putting a screen to conceal something won’t protect it, they would need cover not concealment. But, they’d have to protect it on all sides which might make it overheat too.

    Independently solar powered (each with its own panel and battery) and interactive cameras on site would be a good way to surveil a substation. In some rural parts of the country they’re sticking wifi-connected sensors on power poles, so this is totally doable. Although changing the batteries every few years would be a pain.

    How about they start with not letting terrorists into the country in the first place, by strengthening the southern border that they’re all walking across to get here by?

    • Bob says:

      PP, the reason the authorities seem freaked is apparently because they fear this was not an external act, but either a test run or a message by an insider (or insiders) who know the system quite well and how to carry out an attack and get away scot-free.

      I have to wonder what they are withholding in terms of information. There is clearly something that they haven’t released to the media that has them spooked about this incident for it to be brought up repeatedly.

      • Phelps says:

        One thing that came to mind for me was why they are calling them snipers when there were 5-6 shots fired for each transformer. Then I thought about it being like a big juice can, and it make sense.

        Anyone else who thinks about it will get it too.

  7. B says:

    If they wanted to DESTROY rather than DAMAGE the transformers, they would have used a bit of c-4 or other explosives.

    This was (likely) either a false flag operation or vandalism…

    • Phelps says:

      You don’t need an explosion to destroy something. You just need to make it unusable.

      I don’t need to blow your car up to destroy it, for example. I can just drain the oil from the engine and let it run itself to death.

      • pfsm says:

        I heard on the report on NPR last night that these people deliberately shot the transformers so as to take them down without causing a fire which would have brought unwanted attention to their activities too soon.

  8. rlc2 says:

    “Move Along, these are not the droids you are looking for…”

  9. jay352 says:

    Amateurs or vandals. They certainly didn’t do their homework on cascade events. If you want to keep up on events like this, I use DT analytics. I was aware of this the day after it happened. In their news and opinion they have all kinds of domesticated terrorist categories. It is watching the watchers.

  10. Rob in Katy says:

    Nothing to worry about. Nothing “Terrorist” related here…but they need to scan our emails and track our phone calls…and yet on the other hand they keep the border open and now will allow semi-pro terrorists in… Yeah, nothing to worry about! Cough, bullshit, cough, cough….

  11. Kellie says:

    Too funny. When I was conscripted into the Army…”signals” I asked why signals people were being trained in parachuting…the answer was ” in the next war you are going to jump behind enemy lines and disrupt his comms and power….shoot them out if you cant capture them”….too bad we ( the USA ) are still fighting the 1776 war

  12. NotClauswitz says:

    Could it possibly have been a bit of revenge for PG&E blow-torching the neighborhood in San Bruno, and then lying sacks-of-sh*t claiming for an hour and a half or so that it wasn’t their 30-inch gas-main that was destroying 40-homes and killed eight people, before shutting it off? A fire that required the services of 25 fire engines, 4 Air-Tankers, 2 Air Attack planes, and 1 Helicopter? And then the pg&e bastards passed on the cost of the required upgrades and their fines and expensive litigation onto their consumers?
    Naah. Must be blackp-opps Ninja-snipers.
    And right across the freeway from my old gun-club shootin’ range.
    Google “PG&E San Bruno” and see what you get. Local people are maybe a bit fed-up with their high-handed bullshit.

    • Sharpshooter says:

      “And then the pg&e bastards passed on the cost of the required upgrades and their fines and expensive litigation onto their consumers?”

      Ummm…who else are they going to pass the costs to?