WSB-TV investigates if GA’s power grid is safe after surge of attacks by violent extremists

(ATLANTA, Ga.) — An attack in Moore County, North Carolina left 45,000 people in the cold and dark for days.

Firearms were used to shoot and disable equipment at two substations. The FBI called the attack intentional.

“If your goal is to be disruptive, taking a power grid down is an effective way to do that,” said Georgia State University professor Tony Lemieux, who researches terrorism and extremists. “System collapse is the goal. Right? The accelerationists are trying to accelerate the collapse of the society.”

Earlier this month the FBI caught two suspected white supremacists planning a grid attack in Baltimore, Maryland. That could have been even more catastrophic than the one in North Carolina.

A Homeland Security bulletin published days before the North Carolina attack warns that terrorist groups are using online channels to tell supporters to attack critical infrastructure.

Data from the Department of Energy reveals 163 incidents of physical attacks, vandalism, suspicious activity, and sabotage at power substations in 2022. Six of those happened here in Georgia.

Channel 2 Action News teamed up with Cox Media Group partners to visit more than 50 substations in six states, including Georgia.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Sophia Choi saw some substations were so far off the street you could not see the equipment without trespassing.

Others were surrounded by chain-link fences that would not stop bullets.

Threats of violence have the attention of lawmakers. This week, a US House committee requested a briefing from Homeland Security on this because of that Maryland attempt.

This month, Georgia House representatives introduced a bill creating more penalties for people trying to harm our critical infrastructure.

Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chair Jon Wellinghoff said he fears punitive threats will do little to deter these crimes.

“I think it’s one of the most significant threats we have currently,” Wellinghoff said.

Wellinghoff led FERC when a sniper attacked Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation in 2013.

“It is fairly hit and miss from a standpoint of the utilities making the decision of what to protect and what not to protect, and I think they need to increase the list,” Wellinghoff said.

“Some of the features, security features, you may see, some you may not see,” said Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft.

Georgia Power, along with Georgia Transmission, The Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, and Dalton Utilities, manage power grids across the state.

Georgia Power provides service to 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties.

Kraft said Georgia Power is constantly reevaluating and adding security. He said redundancies in the grid aim to keep the lights on if equipment fails.

“There are multiple ways of securing our facilities, our substations. Some might involve walls. I mentioned that even some ballistic panels or ballistic walls to help withstand gunfire,” Kraft said.

MEAG owns and operates about 200 substations, and told Channel 2 Action News by email:

“MEAG is working internally and alongside other transmission owners in Georgia to ensure that MEAG’s substation physical security technologies are continually current and comparable to other electric entities within the State of Georgia and within the electric industry.”

Georgia Transmission runs more than 200 substations. In an email, they said:

“We have robust security measures in place, including monitoring equipment and surveillance, that allow us to detect abnormalities should they occur. We also have processes and procedures to restore power quickly, whether the cause is manmade or mother nature.”

Georgia Power, MEAG, and Georgia Transmission would not share specific substation details with Channel 2 Action News for security reasons.

But crowdsourced maps online sometimes show detailed information about substation features.

Lemieux said extremists have known this information for years but now, the movement is gaining traction.

“It’s sort of giving this sense of legitimacy, of urgency, of that there’s like this tacit endorsement, like if you go do this thing, you know, it’s okay. You’re on the right side of history,” Lemieux said.

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