Christmas brings new round of attacks on Northwest power grid
The Christmas crimes are the latest in a string of physical attacks on the Northwest power grid.
Update 12/25, 10:30 p.m.: A fourth substation was attacked and set on fire Sunday night, according to the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.
Electrical utilities reported physical attacks on the power grid at three locations outside of Tacoma, Washington, before dawn Christmas morning.
About 15,000 people lost power, according to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
The sheriff’s department is calling the incidents “burglaries,” though nothing was stolen from the three substations.
Substations are a key part of the electrical grid that keeps the nation’s lights on. They convert high-voltage electricity to the lower voltages utility customers use.
“It is unknown if there are any motives or if this was a coordinated attack on the power systems,” according to a statement from the sheriff’s department.
Tacoma Public Utilities, which suffered damage at substations in suburban Spanaway and Graham, called the incidents “attacks” and said its facilities were “deliberately targeted.”
Puget Sound Energy, which suffered damage at a substation in Puyallup, called it “vandalism.”
Sgt. Darren Moss Jr of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department took issue with calling the incidents “attacks.”
“There's nothing that we have found yet that says this is a terrorist attack,” Moss said.
“At this point, we believe their goal was to shut down the power. The reasons for that, we don't know yet,” he said.
“It could be a disgruntled employee,” Moss said.
Tacoma Public Utilities later walked back the term “attack.”
“Per the Pierce Co Sheriff, we can’t characterize these as an attack without first completing the investigation,” spokesperson Jessica Wilson said in a text message late Sunday afternoon.
Moss said the three substations – all within about six miles of each other – were close enough that one person could have carried out all three incursions.
The three substations all have high chain-link fences and security cameras.
“We do have some evidence with the surveillance cameras at each one of these facilities,” Moss said.
He said the security cameras were added after a rash of metal thieves trying to break in to do some very illegal and dangerous recycling.
“Those people are lucky as heck they didn't kill themselves,” Moss said.
Motives, methods unclear
Some Puget Sound Energy customers in Puyallup lost power as a substation there was damaged around 2:40 a.m. on Dec. 25. Puget Sound Energy restored power by 5 a.m. but did not notify the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department for nearly nine hours after the attack, according to the department.
Tacoma Public Utilities customers in parts of Spanaway and Graham lost power at 5:12 a.m., according to the utility’s power outage map. At 5:26 a.m., the sheriff’s department received a call that someone had broken into and damaged a Tacoma Public Utilities substation on 46th Avenue East in Spanaway. Deputies responding to the call learned of an attack at a second Tacoma Public Utilities substation about two miles away.
Moss said whoever broke in cut through locks at two of the substations and cut through a chain-link fence at the third. He declined to describe any of the damage done inside the fences.
“We don't want to have any copycats or anything like that,” Moss said. “But in each of the instances, the suspects broke into the fenced area and then vandalized the equipment inside to cause a power outage.”
The Christmas crimes are the latest in a string of physical attacks on the Northwest grid. At least nine substations in Oregon and Washington have been attacked since mid-November, according to documents obtained by KUOW and Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Whether any of these attacks are connected is unclear.
U.S. Department of Energy data shows the Northwest grid has been physically attacked more in 2022 than in the past six years combined.
Federal agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bonneville Power Administration have been alerting Northwest utilities of the threat of sabotage since before unknown attackers shot up a substation in North Carolina Dec. 3, cutting power to tens of thousands of customers.
In January, the Associated Press reported a U.S. Department of Homeland Security warning that domestic terrorists have been developing “credible, specific plans” to attack electrical infrastructure since at least 2020.
In February, three white supremacists from Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin pleaded guilty to crimes related to a plot to attack the power grid in several regions of the United States.
“The defendants in this case wanted to attack regional power substations and expected the damage would lead to economic distress and civil unrest,” FBI counterterrorism division assistant director Timothy Langan said in a press release.
The Puyallup substation is Puget Sound Energy’s third to be attacked since November. The Bellevue-based private utility has provided few details on any of the incidents, citing an ongoing FBI investigation.