EXCLUSIVE: The evolving threat to US power substations

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Neal Vanskiver, Executive Vice President of Sales, Netwatch reveals how proactive video monitoring can help to combat the escalating security challenges faced by power substations.

Critical infrastructure

In recent years, US power substations have encountered a growing threat due to an unprecedented surge in physical attacks.

Recent figures, showing a 71% increase in security incidents in the past year, point to a trend that is, unfortunately, expected to continue through 2023.

This issue transcends mere statistics and has a tangible impact on the daily lives of citizens, industry and the economy.

The scale of an evolving security problem

The rise in physical security attacks on power substations is of significant concern for municipalities, private and public organizations as well as communities.

According to data from the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC), incidents involving ballistic damage, tampering, security breaches and vandalism have seen a drastic increase.

The scope of these attacks is not limited to specific geographic locations; recent activity has been experienced in repeat and clustered attacks in regions throughout the country including the Southeast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

The motivations behind these incidents are diverse and complex, with economic crimes like theft intersecting with the actions of extremists and radical activist groups.

The growing concern over the multifaceted and complex nature of these attacks presents a serious challenge to authorities, local communities and the energy industry.

The significance of power substations

Power substations are the heart of modern life, enabling residents across the country to live their lives efficiently and effectively.

These facilities power our homes, offices, healthcare centers, railways and other vital infrastructure components.

Any compromise to these sites, whether through accidents or sabotage, can result in significant consequences that impact daily living and operations.

A single targeted attack on a power substation can render thousands of homes without power, leading to disruptions in essential services like emergency response and healthcare.

A co-ordinated assault on these facilities can leave entire counties in darkness until emergency repairs are made — a significant disruption to everyday business and personal activities.

In December 2022, a significant power outage left tens of thousands without electricity in a North Carolina county during frigid temperatures.

Following the widespread blackout, signs of tampering were discovered at two primary electrical substations. At least 35,430 utility customers were without electricity during the outage.

When a utility facility encounters a security breach or any other kind of security incident, it often leads to substantial financial repercussions.

These aren’t limited just to the immediate repair and restoration costs.

The disruption caused by such breaches can result in significant operational downtime, which can translate to a substantial loss of revenue and productivity.

Additionally, in the aftermath of a breach, insurance rates for the utility might surge, leading to increased operational costs in the long term.

However, the financial implications don’t end there. The facility, along with its owners and management team, could find themselves in the crosshairs of liability claims.

Such incidents can tarnish their reputation, making it difficult to regain stakeholder trust.

Beyond that, they may also have to navigate a maze of compliance challenges, as regulatory bodies could levy penalties or require remedial measures to ensure that similar incidents don’t recur in the future.

Conventional security measures: falling short

Electric power companies grapple with the intricate task of safeguarding an extensive system that spans the nation, reaching even its most distant corners.

Since a significant portion of this infrastructure was established years ago without considering security, there’s a pressing need for thorough and proactive safety measures, such as at power substations.

Traditional security measures have long been the cornerstone of many safety protocols.

This includes measures such as erecting fences, deploying passive video surveillance systems and installing adequate lighting at power substations.

Over time, however, it has become increasingly evident that these measures, while foundational, have limitations in effectively deterring potential threats and attacks.

These older methods of security often present numerous vulnerabilities, which become glaringly obvious in the aftermath of a security breach or incident.

Taking video surveillance as an instance, while cameras capture footage of the vicinity, they are largely reactive in nature.

This means that their primary value arises post-incident, serving as a tool for retrospective analysis and investigation, rather than as a proactive measure to prevent the incident in the first place.

Consequently, their deterrence capacity is limited.

Similarly, physical barriers such as fences, bollards and even walls, though they may seem robust, have their own set of challenges.

Skilled or determined intruders at power substations can often find ways to bypass, scale or even damage these barriers.

Whether through exploiting weak points, utilizing tools or merely leveraging the element of surprise, these barriers can be overcome more often than many would like to admit.

In light of these shortcomings, there’s a pressing need for a more comprehensive, modernized approach to security at power substations.

As threats evolve, so must the strategies and tools we employ to safeguard our assets and spaces against them.

The reliance on traditional methods alone exposes a property or facility such as a power substations to a range of risks that today’s advanced and adaptable security solutions aim to mitigate.

A new option for proactive protection

In an era of escalating security concerns, one of the most promising advancements that stands out is a specialized form of video monitoring tailored to intercept potential threats, deter unauthorized entrants and eliminate criminal intent even before they can pose a significant risk to power substations.

Termed ‘Proactive Video Monitoring’ (PVM), this service is delivered through a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model.

This approach encompasses round-the-clock video surveillance paired with instantaneous interventions by skilled operators, aiming not just to identify but also to respond to potential security breaches via live, tailored voice messages.

One of the standout features of PVM is its foundational principle: to act as a deterrent and preemptively prevent physical threats to power substations.

This is achieved using advanced camera technologies, bolstered by sophisticated analytics.

These systems are calibrated to pick up on and alert security personnel to suspicious activities in real time.

Security can oversee power substations from afar, granting them the power to step in immediately upon spotting anything amiss.

The not only forestalls potential crimes but also ensures that the power substation’s operations remain operational.

The operators that support PVM are not standard operators; they are specialists trained to keep a vigilant eye on multiple areas simultaneously, monitoring for any signs of suspicious activities or impending threats.

With a suite of tools at their disposal, they can deliver swift and personalized audio warnings to deter any trespassers.

This system especially shines when considering the constraints of stationing security personnel at remote substations; PVM allows for broader coverage, continual oversight and an efficiency that traditional security methods struggle to match.

What makes PVM particularly innovative is the seamless blend of human expertise and advanced technology.

Central to its operation is the use of embedded AI that has been optimized to automatically spot irregularities.

Upon detecting unauthorized movements or actions, a PVM specialist immediately intervenes.

They utilize a real-time voice-down system to alert intruders of their detection and ongoing recording.

This method has proven incredibly effective; a staggering 98% of would-be trespassers vacate the premises upon hearing the voice warning, effectively de-escalating potential confrontations.

If, however, they remain undeterred, the PVM operator doesn’t hesitate to alert local law enforcement and relevant contacts, ensuring swift and decisive action.

The future of power substation security

The challenges facing US power substations are immense, but not insurmountable.

By recognizing the complexity of the threat and adapting to it with innovation and collaboration, we can forge a path towards a safer and more resilient energy landscape.

The path to stronger security at power substations must be characterized by innovation, collaboration and a more proactive service-based approach to safeguarding the vital infrastructure that these facilities represent.

Advanced security measures, cutting-edge technology and active co-operation between all stakeholders are required to create a secure energy future.

Immediate and proactive action, coupled with an adaptive approach, can transform an escalating threat into an opportunity for sustained growth and stability.

Solutions like proactive video monitoring are critical to ensuring a safe and secure energy infrastructure and protecting power substations.

The reason why is clear: proactive video monitoring services deliver live, immediate intervention that eliminates the opportunity for loss and damage.

No other remote monitoring service can deliver the same.

With the right investments, foresight and commitment to safeguarding our energy infrastructure, the industry can turn a challenge into an opportunity, ensuring that the very backbone of our modern life remains unbreakable.

The time to act is now. The stakes are high, but the potential for a robust and enduring energy future is within reach.

This article was originally published in the September edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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US power substation security in an age of escalating threats

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Date: 16 October 2023

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