Rocky Mountain Power is monitoring grid safety after N.C. substation attacks

An Escalante man is serving time for a 2019 attack on a substation that knocked out power to Garfield and Kane counties.

(Karl B DeBlaker | AP) Employees work on equipment at the West End Substation in West End, N.C., Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, where a serious attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage for many around Southern Pines, N.C. Utah's Rocky Mountain Power says it is working with law enforcement and industry to monitor Utah's grid security.

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In the wake of vandalism this week at power substations in North Carolina, Utah’s largest electrical utility says it is working with “industry partners and law enforcement” to monitor its infrastructure for any emerging threat.

“We are aware of the events and have security measures in place to protect our assets and keep our customers and employees safe and secure,” said Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson David Eskelsen. “We are working closely with industry partners and law enforcement to monitor the situation and will apply any emerging threat information to evaluate against our security measures to reduce the likelihood or impact of an attack where possible.”

Rocky Mountain operates the transmission system across Utah, but those cities with municipal power systems also have substations and infrastructure to secure. Mark Montgomery, executive director for Logan City Light and Power, said the city has not seen any increase in threats or vandalism. “We are not changing our existing security measures.”

The FBI has joined the investigation into outages that left 40,000 people in Moore County, N.C., without power last weekend. Two substations were damaged by gunfire, and other vandalism was also found.

At a Sunday news conference, Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said, “The person, or persons, who did this knew exactly what they were doing. We don’t have a clue why Moore County.”

More than 38,000 people were still without power Monday night, and the county declared a state of emergency and set a 9 p.m. curfew.

Infrastructure security has been a growing concern for utilities. In a 60 Minutes report last August, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Director Jon Wellinghoff said knocking out as few as 20 substations could paralyze the national grid.

“It was actually a very shocking result to us that there’s very few number of substations you need to take out, in the entire United States, to knock out the entire grid,” Wellinghof said.

In 2019, Stephen Plato McRae of Escalante pleaded guilty to one count of destruction of an energy facility after he admitted shooting at substations in Nevada and Utah in 2016, including one Garkane Energy Cooperative substation that knocked out power in Garfield and Kane counties. He apparently targeted the station’s cooling fins, which caused it to overheat and go down. He indicated to an informant that he intended to take down the western power grid.

In a plea deal, McRae was sentenced to 96 months in federal prison, and he agreed to pay $380,000 in restitution after serving the time.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.