Calls for grid protection grow louder in wake of Calif. attack

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Calls to protect the U.S. electric grid from brazen attacks like one in California last year are growing on and off Capitol Hill.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Sunday for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Department of Homeland Security to draft tighter security rules for substations and other critical facilities and bypass the existing rulemaking process, which can take months to produce voluntary standards.

“Voluntary measures by some companies are no substitute for assurances that the power of enforceable standards have for ensuring that all electric power entities that play a significant role in the reliability of our electric power infrastructure are taking the appropriate steps and putting in place necessary measures,” Schumer said in a letter to acting FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Schumer’s letter arrives on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other top Democrats’ request last week that FERC probe whether “minimum standards” are needed to better protect the grid.

At issue are concerns that the current standards-making process, in which the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), an industry group, works with the electric sector to reach a consensus on rules that then go to FERC for final approval. Lawmakers have become increasingly alarmed that the process can take months to complete, lagging behind quickly evolving cyber and physical threats to the system.

Schumer and other top Democratic senators have pointed to an attack in California last year in which shots were fired at Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Metcalf substation outside San Jose, damaging 17 transformers.

“This attack, which lasted almost 20 minutes, nearly brought down power to all of Silicon Valley,” Schumer said. “The perpetrators have not yet been caught. This attack underscores how vulnerable our entire electrical grid is to domestic and foreign terrorism, and the need for enhanced safety measures.”

But whether this is a challenge for Congress, federal agencies or both remains unclear.

Schumer’s letter calls on FERC and DHS to craft new plans to more quickly address attacks on the grid and bypass a rulemaking process that energy companies can veto. He pointed to a DHS presidential policy directive issued last year to address critical infrastructure security. The directive identified energy infrastructure, more than 80 percent of which is privately owned, as “uniquely critical” because it supports the country’s transportation sector, homes and businesses and is critical to the United States’ growth, the senator said.

“While I applaud some of the initiative some electric power companies are taking to protect their facilities, the essential nature of our electric infrastructure to every aspect of our way of life calls for stronger mandatory and enforceable standards at the federal level,” he said.

But former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, a Democrat, said congressional action is needed to ensure that federal agencies can act quickly.

Wellinghoff said during an interview that FERC currently relies on the NERC stakeholder process that can be cumbersome and take months, if not years, to complete. But no federal agency has the power to address “known threats and vulnerabilities,” despite past legislative attempts to give grant such power to entities like FERC, Wellinghoff said.

LaFleur has also called on Congress to act. LaFleur in a letter to Reid and other Democrats last week said Congress should consider shielding sensitive information and appointing a federal agency to take emergency action to thwart physical and computer attacks on the grid (E&ENews PM, Feb. 12).

LaFleur said that, in addition to seeking congressional support, FERC and other federal agencies are actively briefing utilities about specifics of the California attack and the need for stepped-up protections of physical assets.

Wellinghoff said it’s unclear who is responsible for the California attack or whether it was terrorism. What is clear, he said, is that it was unprecedented and underpinned by a complex plan, and protecting high-voltage substation nodes is the practical next step.

“It wasn’t a bunch of amateurs,” Wellinghof