Content Warning: This article includes mentions of racism and extreme violence against people of color.
In the early morning of Nov. 24, 2022, unidentified trespassers cut through the fence of a Clackamas area substation owned by Bonneville Power Administration (BPE). They damaged the substation equipment, but did not end up causing any power disruption.
Also in late Nov. 2022, another substation in the Clackamas area was attacked. This one was owned by Portland General Electric (PGE). According to PGE, the attack impacted close to 6,400 people’s power. Both incidents are now part of an ongoing investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI did not respond to requests for comment and no suspects or motives have been publicly identified.
Substations are key parts of power systems. The United States Department of Labor says electrical substations are “used to switch generators, equipment, and circuits or lines.” In addition, electrical substations transform alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC) or vice-versa and change the level of AC voltages. Voltage is the strength of a current, which is the flow of electric charges in a circuit. AC refers to when the flow changes direction. Electricity is transmitted along power lines and out of power outlets in AC. Then, most household electronics convert AC to DC, which is when the flow is in a single direction. Essentially, damaging any part of a substation will disrupt the power that companies provide to homes on their grids.
A Department of Homeland Security (DOH) bulletin issued on Nov. 30, 2022 lists critical infrastructure, of which the energy sector is a part, as a target for domestic extremist violence. The California Public Utilities Commission January 2018 Physical Security Staff White Paper describes the still unsolved 2013 sniper attack on Pacific Gas and Electric’s Metcalf substation in California as “an alarm for the electric utility industry to apply closer scrutiny to the vulnerability of key infrastructure.” As one of the most vital and most vulnerable parts of the U.S.’ critical infrastructure, the insecurity of the energy sector is a long-standing problem, recently rising in public awareness.
In Washington, two men were arrested on Dec. 31, 2022, for allegedly attacking multiple substations by shooting at them with guns on Christmas day. They are believed to have caused the blackout to aid in a burglary attempt, possibly with the goal to disable security cameras and lights in order to conceal their identities.
Authorities are still searching for the individuals who fired multiple shots at two Moore County, North Carolina substations on Dec. 3, 2022, causing power outages for approximately 45,000. Fences may offer some protection against these attackers, but many of the fences are chain-link and only guarded by padlocks. This can leave the stations highly vulnerable to similar attacks.
Furthermore, substations (typically distribution substations) and other major parts of the energy system are frequently located within urban communities by major roads and sidewalks. This means regular citizens can access them.
For example, in the early 2000s, a man by the name of Michael Devlyn Poulin traveled across the West Coast, removing the bolts from transmission towers. His motive for removing the bolts was to highlight a domestic security issue and attract media attention to the vulnerability of these facilities. In a 2003 LA Times article after his arrest, he states, referring to himself, “we have a situation of one person, one wrench. The person in question is 62 years old, overweight, arthritic, diabetic, half-blind and a cancer patient living on a minimum of 12 medication pills a day.” He appears to be asking how he could’ve accessed the power grid that easily and implying that it could be done by just about anyone.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator, Poulin was released in 2006. He has since heavily critiqued the American government and political system in both his book “Underbelly,” and protests and guest-writing for the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS). However, he has not been mentioned on the PJALS website since 2014 and in an email correspondence with the Franklin Post PJALS confirmed he is no longer a member. Poulin has created a minimal digital footprint and the Post was unable to get into contact with him for further comment.
As stated on their website, PJALS “works on issues of peace, economic justice, racial equity, and human rights … through grassroots community organizing, nonviolence training, volunteer involvement, education, and advocacy.” Poulin’s past work with them suggests that he is or was in support of racial equality. This is in contrast to others who have plotted to or succeeded in attacking power systems. Anti-government views are often a common denominator, however.
In February of 2022, three men pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support for a plot to attack US power grids, citing white supremacist ideology. In the US Department of Justice press release about the plan, Assistant Director Timothy Langan of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division states that the men “wanted to attack regional power substations and expected the damage would lead to economic distress and civil unrest.” Believing that they could cause a race war or the next Great Depression, the defendants, Christopher Brenner Cook, Jonathan Allen Frost, and Jackson Matthew Sawall, each planned to attack a substation in a different region of the United States with rifles.
Frost and Cook met in an online chat room and Sawall assisted with online recruitment efforts. Cook circulated a book list that promoted white supremacy and Neo-Nazism. The prevalence of white supremacist ideology and recruitment online has raised concerns, especially as the networking abilities of the internet have made it increasingly easy to spread these ideologies and share methods of executing these types of crimes.
A June 3, 2022, United States Attorney’s Office press release states that former Air Force sergeant Steven Carrillo posted on social media sites “describing the timing as favorable for the destruction of the government.” This occurred in the weeks before he attacked a government building and security officials during protests over the killing of George Floyd.
According to the July 16, 2020 House Hearing before the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, Carrillo and his accomplices originally planned to bomb an electrical substation. They were members of the Boogaloo movement, a far-right anti-government extremist group that works through online chat rooms and hopes to incite the next civil war.
One site used by the self-named “Boogaloo bois” and other militia or white supremacist groups is Telegram, an encrypted messaging service. Its limited content moderation makes it a magnet for violent extremists, with its Terms of Service stating that by signing up you agree to not promote violence on publicly viewable Telegram channels, implying that it is acceptable to do so in private. A 2020 study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue identified 208 Telegram channels used by white supremacists, many of which include calls for violence. In a Dec. 2022 article, CNN cites a 14-page guide to low-tech white supremacist attacks published on Telegram in 2020, which includes a section devoted to attacking the power grid. CNN did not respond to requests to share the document.
Additionally, according to the DOH, hotter, wetter summers and harsher winters have increased reliance on the electric grid, which may contribute to the rise in attacks. As a result, efforts to protect it are increasing. Currently, distribution substations are not interconnected so that an issue at one facility doesn’t impact the entire system, yet this means that substation failure will cause a blackout. The DOH hopes to connect the substations so that “if one substation fails for any reason, another can step in and provide electricity.”
A new technology, High-Temperature Superconducting (HTS) cables, which can safely connect substations, has been successfully implemented in Chicago with goals to continue to increase grid resiliency nationwide. HTS cables are meant to combat power loss from natural disasters, but may work to provide protection against man-made strikes.
As substation attacks persist, citizens find themselves without power and the US loses nearly $70 billion per year from the outages. The DOH states that “a stable homeland is dependent on the reliable delivery of electricity—from public health to the economy and national security.” There are clear motives for extremists wanting to attack the electrical grid; less clear is what the future of protecting it is.