Snipers Coordinated an Attack on the Power Grid, but Why?

A story seemingly stolen from the pages of a crime thriller, but far less comprehensible. 
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The location of PG&E's Metcalf Transmission Substation is marked with "A" (Google)

Last April, unknown attackers shot up 17 transformers at a California substation in what the then-chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Jon Wellinghoff called "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred" in this country.

Though news reports about the incident at the Metcalf transmission facility came out in April, The Wall Street Journal just pieced together the larger story of the attack together from regulatory filings and outside reporting.

Various power-grid facilities are vandalized or damaged regularly, but the details of this particular attack are startling. 

Before the attackers opened fire on the transformers, fiber optic lines running nearby were cut.

Whoever executed the maneuver knew where to shoot the transformers. They aimed at the oil-cooling systems, causing them to leak oil and eventually overheat. By the time that happened, the attackers were long gone. 

Wellinghoff toured the site with Navy Seals, according to the Journal, and they were convinced that it was a professional job. Several people in the Journal story join Wellinghoff in talking up the physical (not cyber) threats to the grid's stability.

Despite the great reporting in the WSJ story, the central question remains unresolved: Why did this attack occur? What did they want? 

There are something like 1,500 substations just in the regional utility PG&E's network. Why this one? What makes Metcalf special? It's not especially remote. In fact, there is a housing development less than 500 feet away. (And how did those people not hear 100 rounds being fired?)

The Metcalf facility sends power into San Jose/Silicon Valley. But it sounds as though the grid operators were able to route power around the damage in the grid fairly easily. 

Without being too Pynchonian about the whole thing, I find myself asking: What would an attack like this allow someone to do somewhere else? What else was going on in the wee hours of April 16, 2013?

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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