The Right Opinion

America's Power Is Under Threat

The Metcalf incident is a reminder of our greatest vulnerability.

By Peggy Noonan · Feb. 8, 2014

Welcome to my obsession. It is electricity. It makes everything run – the phone, the web, the TV, the radio, all the ways we talk to each other and receive information. The tools and lights in the operating room – electricity. All our computers in a nation run by them, all our defense structures, installations and communications. The pumps at the gas station, the factories in the food-supply chain, the ATM, the device on which you stream your music – all electricity. The premature infant’s ventilator and the sound system at the rock concert – all our essentials and most of our diversions are dependent in some way on this: You plug the device into the wall and it gets electrical power and this makes your life, and the nation’s life, work. Without it, darkness descends.

Because this is so obvious, we don’t think about it unless there’s a blackout somewhere, and then we think about it for a minute and move on. We assume it will just be there, like the sun.

But this societal and structural dependence is something new in the long history of man.

No one who wishes America ill has to blow up a bomb. That might cause severe damage and rattle us. But if you’re clever and you really wanted to half-kill America – to knock it out for a few months or longer and force every one of our material and cultural weaknesses to a crisis stage – you’d take out its electrical grid. The grid is far-flung, interconnected, interdependent, vulnerable. So you’d zap it with an electromagnetic pulse, which would scramble and fry power lines. Or you’d hack the system in a broad, sustained attack, breaking into various parts, taking them down, and watching them take other parts down.

Or you’d do what the people at the center of a riveting front-page story in this newspaper appear to have done. You’d attack it physically, with guns, in a coordinated attack.

The heretofore unknown story happened last April 16. There was an armed assault on a power station in California. Just after midnight some person or persons slipped into an underground vault near Highway 101 just outside San Jose. He or they cut telephone cables – apparently professionally, in a way that would be hard to repair. About a half hour later, surveillance cameras at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s nearby Metcalf substation picked up a streak of light, apparently a signal from a flashlight. Snipers then opened fire. The shooters appear to have been aiming at the transformer’s cooling systems, which were filled with oil. If that was their target, they hit it. The system leaked 52,000 gallons; the transformer overheated and began to crash. Then there was another flash of light, and the shooting, which had gone on almost 20 minutes, stopped.

The assault knocked out 17 giant transformers that feed electrical power to Silicon Valley. A minute before the police arrived, “the shooters disappeared into the night,” in the words of reporter Rebecca Smith, who put the story together through interviews, PG&E filings, documents and a police video.

No suspect in the case has been identified.

Jon Wellinghoff, who at the time was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told Ms. Smith the attack “was the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.” If the attack were replicated around the country, it could take down the entire electrical grid.

There was no big blackout after the attack – officials rerouted power, and power plants in Silicon Valley were asked to increase their output – but it took 27 days to get the substation fully working again.

Mr. Wellinghoff said he briefed Congress, the White House and federal agencies. But 10 months have passed since the attack, and he fears another, larger one could be in the planning stage.

Ms. Smith quotes an FBI spokesman in San Francisco saying the bureau doesn’t think a terrorist organization launched the attack. Investigators, he said, “are continuing to sort through the evidence.” PG&E, in a news release, called it the work of vandals.

If so, they were extremely sophisticated and well-armed. More than 100 shell casings were later found at the site. They were of the kind ejected by AK-47s. They were free of fingerprints.

Mr. Wellinghoff later toured the area with professionals from the U.S. Navy’s Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center in Virginia, which trains the SEALs. He said the military experts told him it looked like a professional job. They noted small piles of rocks that they said could have been left by an advance scout to alert the attackers as to where to get the best shots.

Some in the industry see it the way Mr. Wellinghoff does, including a former official of PG&E, who told an industry security conference he feared the incident could be a dress rehearsal: “This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.”

Rich Lordan, an executive at the Electric Power Research Institute, said: “The depth and breadth of the attack was unprecedented” in the United States. The motivation, he said, “appears to be preparation for an act of war.”

It’s hard to look at the facts and see the Metcalf incident as anything but a deliberate attack by a coordinated, professional group with something deeper and more dangerous on their minds than the joys of vandalism.

So, questions. Who is looking for the shooters, and how hard? On whose list of daily action items is it the top priority?

Those who worry about the grid mostly worry about hackers, and understandably: The grid is under regular hack attack. But the more immediate and larger threat may be physical attacks. In any case, as Ms. Smith suggests, the Metcalf incident appears to lift the discussion beyond the hypothetical.

Protection of the grid on all levels and from all threats should be given much more urgent priority by the federal government. If it ever goes down nationally, it will take time to get it back up and operational, and in the time it could take – months, weeks – many of our country’s problems would present themselves in new and grimmer ways. There would likely be broad unrest, much of it inevitable and some of it opportunistic. What would happen in an environment like that, with people without light, means of communication, and perhaps in time food? What would happen to public safety? To civil liberties? Those questions sound farfetched. They are not.

I end with an anecdote. In 2006 I met with some congressional aides and staffers to talk, informally, about what questions should be in the country’s hierarchy of worries. They were surprised when I told them a primary concern of mine was electricity, how dependent we are on it, how vulnerable the whole system is. I asked if there was any work being done to strengthen the grid. Blank faces, crickets. Then a bright young woman said she thought there was something about electricity in the appropriations bill a while back.

You always want to think your government is on it. You want to think they see what you see. But really, they’re never on it. They always have to be pushed.