Critics Call for Investigation into PG&E Substation Security

Sen. Jerry Hill and former CPUC president Loretta Lynch call on the CPUC to investigate PG&E’s assertions of increased security at critical substations in California

Two prominent critics are calling for an investigation into Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s efforts to protect the infrastructure that controls electricity in California, following an NBC Bay Area investigation about electric substation security.

California senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) and former president of the state’s Public Utilities Commission Loretta Lynch are upset with the lack of security upgrades exposed in the NBC Bay Area reports.

“The evidence that I’ve seen is certainly more than sufficient to open an investigation,” Lynch said.

Security at substations is critical because experts say a successful attack could knock out power to the Bay Area for weeks or even months.

In August, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit visited 14 of PG&E’s largest and most critical substations in Northern and Central California. NBC Bay Area discovered what experts have called vulnerabilities in PG&E’s security network. Two facilities appeared to be unmanned. At seven others, security guards failed to patrol the perimeter of the substations. At another, an open gate provided direct access to critical electric hardware. At five substations, NBC Bay Area was able to stand close enough to the outer fences to use a thermal imaging camera and identify transformers in the dark.

“It was upsetting to me,” Hill said after reviewing the findings of the NBC Bay Area investigation. “It said PG&E has not done enough to protect the infrastructure that we so rely on.”

Hill has authored a successful bill that will force California utility companies to increase security at substations next year. Earlier this month, Hill sent a letter to the CPUC calling for the regulator to review security at PG&E’s critical substations.

Hill wrote, “…all the public has is the word of PG&E’s public relations office for assurance that its efforts to secure the electric grid are appropriate and effective.” Hill added that the CPUC has “an opportunity to demonstrate that the Commission has the courage and the capability to challenge PG&E’s assertions and the dedication to communicate to the public an evaluation of PG&E’s performance.”

Last April attackers shot 100 high powered rifle rounds into 17 transformers at the Metcalf substation in South San Jose. The incident lasted just 19 minutes, and had the potential to black out much of Silicon Valley. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has not officially labeled the attack an act of terrorism, but many high-ranking government sources and congressional leaders have raised concerns that the Metcalf attack may foreshadow a more robust attack plan.

PG&E promised to spend $100 million over three years to improve security at critical electric substations. A year and a half later, the Investigative Unit discovered what appeared to be a highly simplistic security network. A military veteran trained in special operations who visited PG&E’s most important substations concluded that PG&E would only get a passing grade when it comes to security.

“Metcalf could be repeated at all the sites you showed me in less than 15 minutes,” he said. He asked to keep his name anonymous, citing future undercover assignments.

PG&E calls its current security “high level.” After visiting 14 facilities unannounced, the Investigative Unit asked PG&E if it could provide details that indicated the utility knew when and where the visits had taken place. Senior director of corporate security Stephanie Douglas wouldn’t answer directly.

“I’ll let you give me some ideas,” she said.

Just nine days after that conversation, intruders cut through a fence at the Metcalf substation and stole construction equipment. Security guards were on the premises at the time of the break-in, which went unreported for more than four hours.

PG&E’s “high level” security network so far has failed to produce any public photos or video of the break-in. As a point of contrast, earlier this year surveillance cameras at a South Bay car dealership captured video of multiple car thefts in action.

Lynch said that the CPUC, led by president, Michael Peevey has both the power and the responsibility to look closer and demand accountability from PG&E.

“The concern I have,” she said, “is that the CPUC under Mike Peevey has been very slow to investigate when it would embarrass the utility.”

CPUC commissioners declined multiple requests for interviews but CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon responded to Hill’s letter. Clanon said that the Commission’s investigation into the August break-in at the Metcalf substation is ongoing and “includes interviews with PG&E staff, data requests and other standard investigative steps.” Clanon also said that the CPUC has directed the utility to perform a “root cause analysis” of the incident. He said that the CPUC is monitoring PG&E’s progress of substation upgrades and “will conduct audits to assure compliance with safety requirements.”

Stephanie Douglas also denied a request for an update on substation security.

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