Gunshots fired at two power substations in Moore County, North Carolina, late last year left 45,000 homes and businesses without power and more attacks just like that could already be planned by domestic extremist groups, according to experts.
“All of a sudden, about 8:45 p.m., about 20 shots fired off right across the street,” Spencer Matthews told CNN affiliate WRAL shortly after the December attack.
The gunfire hit critical parts of the substations and the power went out.
“Got no way to heat because we don’t have a fireplace,” one woman told WRAL after her home was plunged into darkness.
Investigators found nearly two dozen shell casings from a high-powered rifle near the substations, but so far have not found a gun or made any arrests.
Experts say the two substation attacks could be the work of domestic extremists who have openly advocated targeting a vulnerable power system.
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The motive behind the December 3 attack is still not known, but it came after an FBI bulletin in November warned of threats by extremist groups to “create civil disorder and inspire further violence.”
“This typically very primitive style attack equals millions of dollars in damage,” Brian Harrell, a former US Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection, told CNN. “If you were to shoot out some very key components you can quickly create an effect where this large multimillion dollar transformer becomes essentially a paperweight.”
In 2022 there were 25 “actual physical attacks” reported on power facilities across the US and one report of “sabotage,” according to the latest statistics available from the Department of Energy.
The data also shows 57 reports of suspicious activity, and 80 acts of vandalism.
The numbers are mostly trending up, compared with 2021, when there were six actual physical attacks reported and two reports of sabotage. The data also shows 32 reports of suspicious activity, and 52 acts of vandalism.
Many attacks remain unsolved.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that 2023… is probably going to be the most catastrophic when it comes to the uptick of DVE (Domestic Violent Extremist) attacks on electricity infrastructure,” Harrell said. “A number of individuals and extremist groups online right now have already signaled that this is a part of their playbook.”
One of those playbooks, with a swastika and lightning bolts on the cover, published on a social media platform by a neo-Nazi group, makes their aim quite clear.
“The main thing that keeps the anti-White system going is the powergrid,” the document reads. “This is something that is easier than you think. Peppered all over the country are power distribution substations… Sitting ducks, worthy prey.”
It’s part of a White-power philosophy called “accelerationism,” which wants to destroy society and replace it with one based on their racist ideologies.
“With the power off, when the lights don’t come back on… all hell will break lose, [sic] making conditions desirable for our race to once again take back what is ours,” they write.
The head of another accelerationist group posted on social media that these attackers have “cracked the code on lone wolf attacks.”
The attacks “check off all the necessary boxes which I didn’t think possible for lone wolf ops in USA – Frequency, sustainability, geographic concentration,” he is quoted as saying. “Law enforcement appears powerless (no pun intended) to stop them.”
A few coordinated attacks could collapse the system
These groups dream of striking exactly the right spots in the power grid, which government reports have warned for decades could cause a domino effect and leave huge parts of the country in the dark.
“If you were to target, you know, eight or nine very key nodes throughout the United States, you potentially could have a collapsing effect,” Harrell warns.
High voltage transmission power lines and substations are often spread across the country in out of the way places which can be hard to keep safe and technically challenging to secure.
“It’s inherently very difficult to harden or protect it all,” Granger Morgan, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University told CNN. “It may not take all that high tech an approach to cause physical disruption that could have very large consequences.”
Morgan is the chair of the National Academy of Science’s committee on enhancing the resilience of the nation’s power system.
“Physical attacks on major system components could cause serious physical damage, especially to large transformers and other hard to replace substation and transmission equipment such as high voltage circuit breakers,” one of his papers from 2017 warned. “Recovery could easily require many days or weeks.”
Right now there is no central authority that regulates the entire power system, which, Morgan says, gets in the way of changes needed to make the system more robust and resilient from attack.
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“No one at the moment has authority to deal with the entire system, and we need to get that situation fixed,” he said. “We’ve got the federal regulators overseeing the high voltage system that brings power across long distances. We’ve got state public utility commissions dealing with things at the state level, we got both private and public power.”
Morgan said a presidential commission or other powerful political body needs to be appointed to take the lead in protecting the grid and making it more resilient to attacks.
“We just need to get much more systematic in terms of figuring out both how we protect against it, but also how we can quickly put the system back together again, once a problem arises,” he said.