Congressional Hearing Explores Power Grid Security, Vulnerability

Witnesses testify during the House Committee on Energy Commerce hearing at Pinehurst Village Hall Friday, June 16. From left, Mark Aysta, managing director of enterprise security at Duke Energy; William Ray, Director of N.C. Emergency Management; Tim Ponseti with the SERC Reliability Corporation; and N.C. State University’s Jordan Kern, a professor in industrial engineering took questions from committee members. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

Staff Writer

No arrests have yet been made in Moore County’s Dec. 3 power grid attacks, but U.S. lawmakers are probing the incident to learn how the nation’s electric infrastructure might be adapted to ameliorate the effects of any similar attack in the future.

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, who lives in Southern Pines and represents North Carolina’s Ninth District, was in Pinehurst Friday morning with eight other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a field hearing on threats to that infrastructure.

The 90-minute hearing in Pinehurst Village Hall was formally convened as a meeting of the Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security.

Questions between the subcommittee members and panel of four witnesses covered the electric grid’s physical and cybersecurity vulnerabilities, as well as weaknesses in how utility companies and agencies at all levels of government respond to attacks that magnify their effect.

In Moore County, 45,000 homes and businesses mostly served by Duke Energy plunged into a darkness the first weekend of December that lasted nearly four days after gunfire disabled two electrical substations.

Subcommittee members toured one of those stations, in West End, on Friday morning before the hearing.

“I wanted my colleagues to see the sophistication of that attack and understand the larger implications of that as it plays into the vulnerabilities of our utility grid,” Hudson said in his opening remarks.

“I think we can learn from what happened here, what could happen somewhere else if a larger-scale attack of this sophistication ever were to happen.” 

The bulk of the committee’s inquiry fell to Duke Energy’s Mark Aysta, an enterprise security director at the energy company.

Most pointedly, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) accused the company of ignoring Department of Homeland Security warnings in the weeks before the attack. He specifically cited a Nov. 30 bulletin warning that critical infrastructure could be targeted.

Aysta said that Duke “routinely” receives similar notifications.

“We will surge security resources into areas where we believe we have an increased threat,” he said. “We cannot protect the thousands of substations across our jurisdictions.”

Palmer responded that substations should be manned around-the-clock for surveillance purposes. Based on a similar attack in California in 2013 and more recent incidents in Washington and Oregon, he said that Duke should have taken “additional steps” to protect its substations.

“I’m not going to buy that, Mr. Chairman, that you can’t protect them,” he said. “You’ve got security cameras, you’ve got other things. We’re not talking about necessarily putting up ballistic-proof fencing or things like that.”

Palmer called into question the security at the West End substation.

“Sir, we have three trail cameras that are deployed with 360 (degree) coverage so they were placed strategically around that substation,” Aysta responded.

But Palmer confirmed that those cameras were placed following December’s attack.

“That’s the problem that I have with this, Mr. Chairman, when we get these warnings we don’t even do anything about them,” he said.

Also questioned by the subcommittee were witnesses William Ray, director and deputy homeland security advisor with the state Department of Public Safety’s emergency management division; SERC Reliability Corporation operations Vice President Tim Ponseti; and Jordan Kern, an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at N.C. State University.

Witnesses also testified about how supply chain disruptions, overreliance on carbon energy and state and federal information-sharing protocols hinder efforts to prevent attacks and the ability of the electrical grid to function after one.

In an effort to hold off further supply chain issues that could prevent critical substation repairs, Hudson introduced legislation this week to suspend the Department of Energy’s authority to create new energy efficiency standards for distribution transformers.

That proposed legislation, titled “Protecting Americans Distribution Transformer Supply Chain Act,” responds to a proposed federal regulation that all transformers shift to amorphous steel cores. Aysta said Friday that standard would “further exacerbate” supply chain issues.

“We will stand behind or agree with our manufacturers that although energy-efficiency is a good thing eventually, right now is not the time,” he said. 

Duke Energy has spent the six months since December conducting a review of its electric generation system to buttress its overall system against future attacks. That has involved training law enforcement on threats to the grid and locating transformers and other parts that are in short supply so that critical substations can quickly be repaired after an attack or weather-related damage. 

“We’re talking about those substations where we can’t reroute power. So if there’s a substation and it is taken out of service by a tornado, a hurricane or a threat actor and we can field-switch that power and the customers feel no impact, that is not a substation that we’re going to focus on,” Aysta said.

“We are going to focus on those substations, like you saw at West End this morning, where we cannot switch power.” 

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) asked if substations would be more secure across the board with solid walls around their perimeter. Aysta responded that level of defense would be easily overcome in hilly and mountainous regions, or in a targeted attack. 

“We’re always balancing security, reliability and affordability,” he said.

“Today the threat may be from ballistics, somebody shooting. Tomorrow the threat may be from drones, that no matter how high your wall is they will be able to defeat it.”

Hudson and other subcommittee members expressed frustration that the criminal investigators into the Moore County attacks have yet to identify a suspect. Hudson told members of the media that the FBI “could have done better” in assisting local law enforcement.

“I want to hear from the FBI, their side of the story,” he said. “But from a local standpoint we’re not satisfied with the attention and cooperation we’ve gotten.”

Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA) said that the disconnect between various levels of law enforcement echo back to the Sept. 11 attacks. 

“We created this huge department now called Homeland Security to make sure that our homeland is secure,” said Allen.

“I’m real disappointed that we haven’t found the perpetrators of this and I’m not sure that we’re making efforts to do that. We’ve got to up our game here.”

Hudson said that Friday’s hearing is the first of many in the congressional review of the nation’s energy security. 

“Ultimately we want to know what can we do from a federal government standpoint, working with private industry, to make this less of a target, to make these kind of attacks less likely, and the impacts of something like this happening less damaging for our community,” he said. 

Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or