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North Carolina power outage points to Homeland Security long-documented threats to US power grid

The investigation into sabotage gunfire at North Carolina substations causing mass power outages for tens of thousands in Moore County extending well into this week serves as a reminder to threats documented by the Department of Homeland Security months ago that leave the U.S. power grid vulnerable. 

A state of emergency extended for a third day Tuesday in Moore County, which is roughly 60 miles southwest of Raleigh, as more than 30,000 customers remained without power amid cold temperatures. 

Authorities so far have not named a motive or suspects or announced any arrests in connection to what they’re describing as a criminal shooting of two substations, resulting in damage to critical infrastructure now in need of extensive repairs by Duke Energy. 

Whatever the reason, the shooting serves as a reminder of why experts have stressed the need to secure the U.S. power grid. Authorities have warned that the nation’s electricity infrastructure could be vulnerable targets for domestic terrorists.

NORTH CAROLINA POWER OUTAGE: WHITE HOUSE RESPONDS AMID SUBSTATION SABOTAGE PROBE IN MOORE COUNTY 

Here’s a look at what is known about the shooting and why it could have implications across the U.S.

Federal authorities have warned that the power grid could be a prime target for extremist groups that embrace “accelerationism,” a fringe philosophy that promotes mass violence to fuel society’s collapse.

A gate blocks the road leading to the West End Substation, at 6910 NC Hwy 211 in West End, N.C., Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, where a serious attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage to many around Southern Pines, N.C. ( AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker / AP Images)

In January, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report warned that domestic extremists have been developing “credible, specific plans” to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020. The DHS report warns that extremists “adhering to a range of ideologies will likely continue to plot and encourage physical attacks against electrical infrastructure.”

The department wrote that attackers would be unlikely to produce widespread, multistate outages without inside help. But its report cautioned that an attack could still do damage and cause injuries.

The Associated Press reported that members of White supremacist and antigovernment groups have been linked to plots to attack the power grid. In February, three men pleaded guilty to conspiring to attack U.S. energy facilities. Authorities said they were driven by White supremacist ideologies to “sow mayhem and division among Americans.”

nc substation restoration

Workers work on equipment at the West End Substation, at 6910 NC Hwy 211 in West End, N.C., Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, where a serious attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage to many around Southern Pines, N.C. ( AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker / AP Images)

Fears of an attack on the nation’s electricity infrastructure are nothing new. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered grid operators to increase security following a still-unsolved April 2013 sniper attack on a California electric substation.

The attack on the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation in an isolated area near San Jose, California, caused power outages and led to calls for millions of people to conserve energy.

The attack involved snipping fiber-optic phone lines and firing shots into the PG&E substation. The FBI said at the time that it found no evidence that it was an act of terrorism.

Former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who chaired the Senate Energy Committee in 2014, said at the time that it was fortunate the attack didn’t cause a blackout in Silicon Valley, “the horrors of which could only be imagined.”

nc power outage repairs

Workers work on equipment at the West End Substation, at 6910 NC Hwy 211 in West End, N.C., Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, where a serious attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage to many around Southern Pines, N.C.  (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker / AP Images)

In the wake of that attack, FERC and other agencies recommended utilities to take specific measures to protect vulnerable substations, like adding walls, sensors or cameras. Still, many remain exposed in rural areas of the U.S. And experts have warned for years that taking out a few substations could cause rolling blackouts in the U.S., leaving millions without power.

A Utah man was arrested in 2016 and later sentenced to federal prison time after he used a rifle to shoot the cooling fins of a substation, rupturing the radiator piping and causing the substation to overheat and fail. Court documents said the man had planned to attack other substations as part of an effort to take down power in a large chunk of the western United States.

nc power dark signal sign

Workers set up an automated display warning drivers on NC211 of the power outage in the area and how to approach the upcoming intersections in Southern Pines, N.C., Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.  (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker / AP Images)

The outages in North Carolina began shortly after 7 p.m. on Saturday when one or more people opened fire on two power substations in Moore County, the county’s sheriff said. The outages initially left 45,000 customers without electricity, and the equipment could take days to repair, according to Duke Energy.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was briefed on the outages impacting Moore County.  

“DHS will continue to share information with the FBI, and state and local authorities as the investigation unfolds. CISA leadership and regional teams have offered support to Duke Energy as they work to restore service,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Fox News Digital Tuesday. 

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said at a Sunday news conference that authorities have not determined a motive. He said someone pulled up and “opened fire on the substation, the same thing with the other one.” The sheriff said that it appeared gates were breached at both sites. 

nc candlelight during power outags

Patrons dine by candelight at Red’s Corner during the Moore County power outage, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Southern Pines, N.C. Tens of thousands of people are bracing for days without electricity in Moore County where authorities say two power substa (Kaitlin McKeown/The News & Observer via AP / AP Images)

The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines, North Carolina reported that a wooden post holding up a gate had been snapped at one of the substations and that it was lying in an access road Sunday morning.

The sheriff noted that the FBI was working with state investigators to determine who was responsible. He also said “it was targeted.” “It wasn’t random,” Fields said.

Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said that the company has multiple layers of security at each of its facilities but declined to provide specifics. He said that the company has planning in place to recover from events like the shooting and that they are following those plans.

nc food trucks during blackouts

Elowyn Hoelscher, 7, stands in line at a food truck with her mother, Erika Hoelscher, at Red’s Corner during the Moore County power outage on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Southern Pines, N.C. Tens of thousands of people are bracing for days without elect (Kaitlin McKeown/The News & Observer via AP / AP Images)

Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Ruth Clemens said the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has offered support to Duke Energy as it efforts the restoration of power.

The vastness of American electricity infrastructure makes it difficult to defend. Power plants and substations like those targeted in North Carolina are dispersed in every corner of the country and connected by transmission lines that transport electricity through farmland, forests and swamps.

“The grid is massive,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI official and professor of homeland security at the University of Southern California, told the AP. 

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The targets also present an increasing challenge to secure because attackers don’t always have to get as close as they did in North Carolina in order to do damage, Southers said. With the right rifle, skill and line of sight a sniper could take a shot from as far as 1,500 meters (about 4,900 feet) away.

Protecting substations against a long range rifle shot is “extremely challenging, if not impossible,” he said.

Southers said all of these challenges mean that protecting the electricity infrastructure can come down to response and backup systems more than defense. “Those are the kinds of things that you put in place to protect, knowing that you may not be able to stop the rifle shot.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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