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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Lawmakers will study electric infrastructure

This story originally appeared in the North Carolina Tribune.

Congressional and state lawmakers, as well as the N.C. Utilities Commission, plan to review this week’s Moore County electric substation attack to see if new laws or regulations are needed to prevent future incidents.

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson serves on the Committee on Energy and Commerce and represents Moore County. He said he’s already talking with leading members of Congress on energy and homeland security issues and expects to hold congressional hearings next year.

“There’s a need for Congress to review the physical security of the U.S. power grid,” he said. “This is a national issue –  this is a warning and shame on us if we don’t learn from it.”

Hudson wants to better understand whether more security is needed at substation sites, or “is it a better investment to make sure we have redundancy,” such as replacement parts that could be installed quickly. He’s concerned that there are few U.S. manufacturers of transformer equipment and that many are made in China.

“This wouldn’t have been as bad a situation for Moore County if we had a backup transformer nearby,” he said.

Legislators in Raleigh will also be looking at the issue when they begin their session next month.

Newly elected Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton is a Cabarrus County Republican and former Duke Energy executive who oversees energy policy. He says he’s working with Moore County’s senator, Tom McInnis, on possible state recovery funding to help businesses affected by the power outages.

Newton and McInnis are also reviewing state law to see if the person or people responsible can be held liable for business losses in addition to the electrical equipment damage.

How to improve security around key electrical infrastructure is a trickier issue, because multiple layers of government are involved in regulations.

“We’re definitely going to look at it,” Newton said. “I think it’s too early to tell if there’s anything for the legislature to do here. … We don’t prescribe safety or resiliency standards for electrical equipment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.”

Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican who chairs the Energy and Public Utilities Committee, said he wants to get stakeholders together to discuss next steps. One possibility is state funding for efforts to “harden the grid” and prevent outages, whether from natural disasters or from gunfire.

He compares it to the legislature’s recent efforts to fund security improvements at public schools. “This is a case where North Carolina might be out in front of some of the federal actions,” he said.

Newton said utilities must evaluate the costs and benefits of several approaches, and they’ll likely need regulatory approval to make major investments to address the issue.

“The Utilities Commission is responsible for approving the (electric providers’) spend on reliability and hardening of targets,” Newton said.

The commission is scheduled to get a briefing from Duke Energy about the Moore County attack on Monday, according to general counsel Sam Watson.

“Cyber and physical security of the bulk electric system transmission facilities are more commonly addressed at the federal level,” he said in an email. “The utility is expected to provide adequate, reliable service, but there is no current commission rule directly addressing substation security. The situation in Moore County is still under investigation, and the commission has not decided on any next steps to be taken.”

Another issue legislators want to address is the criminal penalties for attacking critical infrastructure. While similar incidents around the country have been prosecuted under federal law, there appear to be few specifics in state law.

McInnis raised the possibility of tougher laws, and both Arp and Newton said they agree with his view. A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said his staff is working with McInnis to research any inadequacies in current law.

“I was surprised that the penalty for such a devastation could result in no jail time with no prior felonies,” Arp said. “I think something on the order of at least five years for such a significant attack like this would be warranted.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who serves on the Energy and Public Utilities Committee, said she’s typically “not a fan” of tougher criminal penalties – she says they often don’t deter crime – but there needs to be a specific law addressing an attack on infrastructure.

Like her GOP colleagues, Harrison wants legislators to discuss the issues when it convenes next year to see if any action is needed.

“Clearly you can’t leave these things unattended with no camera, because this is starting to be a pattern,” she said.

Gov. Roy Cooper echoed those concerns in remarks to reporters this week. “I think we need to assess where we are on our critical infrastructure,” he said. “I know that there are a number of federal requirements that utilities have to abide by. But this seemed to be too easy.”

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