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Between October 2022 and February 2023, at least nine substations were attacked in North Carolina, Washington State, and Oregon, resulting in power outages for tens of thousands of people.  Damage to two substations in Moore County, North Carolina on December 3, 2022 caused 45,000 people to lose power, some for five days.

Concern about the physical security of substations (and by extension the security of the electrical grids) is not new.  In 2013, a sniper attack on a power station in California was described as a “wake-up call” for more attention to the vulnerability of key infrastructure.  Following the attack, in Order No. 802, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved Physical Security Reliability Standard CIP-014-1.[1]

In response to the recent attacks, FERC approved revised Physical Security Reliability Standard CIP-014-3 and ordered the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to conduct a study on the adequacy of that standard, and whether a minimum level of physical security protections should be required for all bulk-power system transmission stations and substations and primary control centers.[2]  The NERC report is due by April 14, 2023.

States’ legislators have also responded to the attacks.  California, where the 2013 sniper attack occurred, claims to be the first state in the nation to adopt rules to safeguard its electric distribution grid against terrorist attack.  Recently, legislators in North Carolina, South Carolina and Arizona have introduced bills that require enhanced security at substations or penalties for damaging them.

Admiral Bobby Inman has described the failure to foresee the 9/11 attack not only as an intelligence failure, but also as a “failure of imagination.”  In this case, experts have already imagined what would happen if coordinated attacks targeted substations – for example, a 2014 study by FERC concluded that coordinated attacks on only nine substations on a high-demand day could create a coast-to-coast blackout for weeks, if not months.  Although such national coordinated attacks would be difficult to orchestrate, the effectiveness of the tactic is demonstrated by Russia’s attacks on Ukraine that have systematically sought to cripple Ukraine’s electrical grid.

The costs of physical security are substantial and daunting, given that there are approximately 55,000 substations in the United States, but those security costs must be weighed against the incredible costs that can arise from outages.[3]  Even if regulations or industry practices commit to increasing physical security despite the cost, the path to such security is not entirely clear.  Physical reinforcements and enhanced monitoring, even physical patrols, could mitigate the risk of a successful attack.  However, long-range attacks from high-powered rifles remain difficult to secure against.[4]

Husch Blackwell continues to monitor developments in the physical security of substations, including related legislation, industry standards, risks, and choices affecting end-users, insurers, utility companies, and other affected parties.

[1] Physical Sec. Reliability Standard, Order No. 802, 149 FERC ¶ 61,140 at P 1.

[2]  N. Am. Elec. Reliability Corp., 179 FERC ¶ 61,187 (2022) (approving Reliability Standard CIP-014-3); and N. Am. Elec. Reliability Corp., 181 FERC ¶ 61,230 (2022) (Order Directing Report).

[3]  See, e.g., Texas Department of Insurance, “Insured Losses Resulting from the February 2021 Texas Winter Weather Event”, Dec. 27, 2021, estimating $10.3 billion dollars in insured Texas losses related to the power outages in Texas caused by Hurricane Yuri.

[4] See NPR interview by Ayesha Rascoe with Erroll Southers, professor of national and homeland security at the University of Southern California on December 11, 2022, “How safe are electrical power grids in the U.S.?”.

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Photo of Sean Farrell Sean Farrell

Sean combines his experience in real estate law and energy regulation to help clients build the renewable energy projects that will drive the future.

After beginning his legal career in litigation and real estate agreements, Sean found himself drawn to news articles regarding

Sean combines his experience in real estate law and energy regulation to help clients build the renewable energy projects that will drive the future.

After beginning his legal career in litigation and real estate agreements, Sean found himself drawn to news articles regarding changes in energy law and energy programs through the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT). Realizing his true interest lay in the energy sector, he pivoted from his law firm job and took a position as a PUCT attorney, where he represented the public interest in proceedings before the Commission. Sean served as the lead attorney for the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone docket and regularly addressed matters involving transmission lines, violations and rulemakings.

Sean later returned to the private sector, representing clients in administrative proceedings before the PUCT, including contested rate cases and cases involving placement of transmission lines. He then transitioned from energy matters to real estate law, negotiating commercial leases and purchase and sale agreements, resolving title and survey issues, and representing landlords, tenants and developers.

Today, Sean combines both aspects of his background and represents renewable energy project developers and owners in a variety of real estate matters. He advises clients on title and survey issues, leases, easements, acquisitions and dispositions of property, landowner negotiations, and financing and investment agreements.

Sean greatly values the opportunity to work in such an important and evolving area of law, and he’s particularly excited to work with clients on the cutting edge of energy development. He knows renewable energy is a field the world is increasingly—and necessarily—embracing, and he finds great satisfaction in helping clients build a better and prosperous future.