On the Grid: A New Solution to Answer Security Concerns for the Protection of Critical Substations

05/05/2015 03:19 pm

Once every four days the US power grid is struck by a physical or cyber-attack, according to a new study published by USA Today detailing analysis from federal energy records. 

Disabling a few critical substations across the country could result in widespread power outages, inflicting detrimental damage to millions of people and the power systems they rely on -heating and air conditioning units, traffic lights and medical equipment.  Despite the 362 reported incidents against electrical grid infrastructures since 2011, no suspects have ever been apprehended for their involvement in attempting to destroy or damage part of the nation’s power grid.  Arguably, the most notable of these attacks occurred on April 16th, 2013, when a security breach wreaked havoc on a Pacific Gas and Electric’s Metcalf substation causing $15 million in damages after intruders severed six under-ground fiber optic lines before firing over 100 shots at the substation’s transformers.  

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (or NERC) viewed the unfortunate incident as a catalyst to increase the protection of transmission stations, transmission substations and their associated control centers from future attacks by enacting the NERC CIP-014. With its implementation, the regulatory standard outlines a series of steps, or guidelines, for transmission station and substation operators to abide by in order to protect their critical sites. This new regulation published in November has received some trepidation from the industry as it is left to the substations themselves to classify their sites as critical and not FERC-the federal agency that has jurisdiction for the power grids. And unfortunately, for the most part, these sites remain very vulnerable as records have shown the hundreds of attacks over the last few years undoubtedly raising security concerns.  

For facilities designated as critical for CIP compliance purposes, the ability to detect intruders beyond the constraints of a site’s Physical Security Perimeter is paramount and if left unresolved could result in fines up to one million dollars per day per violation.  To effectively monitor their perimeter, a critical site needs to have a comprehensive, cost-effective perimeter surveillance system in place that operates 24/7 whatever the weather or time of day and alerts operators of a detected “threat”.  

In an effort to help transmissions stations and other critical infrastructure sites (such as water treatment facilities, solar and wind farms, nuclear sites, prisons, etc.) protect their equipment, resources, personnel and customers, Electro Optical Industries based in Santa Barbara, CA has recently launched the latest model in their line of panoramic thermal infrared imaging systems called the Spynel-M.  The Spynel-M can be operated by solar or alternative power supply systems which proves to be extremely important for power grid sites and substations that are usually in remote locations. The Spynel-M is lightweight, versatile design allows the camera to be installed on a mast or building in austere remote locations. With its advanced intrusion detection software Cyclope, developed over the course of ten years, the system automatically detects and tracks an unlimited number of targets from any direction, at any time of day and through any weather. This would be a valuable and cost-effective answer for substation operators to utilize to prevent their costly equipment from being damaged. In order to protect our nations electric grids and critical infrastructure from the constantly changing asymmetric threat environments – we need to take advantage of the best technology available to deter any catastrophic events from occurring by the hand of terrorist attacks, vandalism or theft. The Spynel-M is one such defense and perimeter solution designed to mitigate these risks and reduce operator fatigue which ensures a safe site that continues to provide vital power to millions of people.