Sniper attack on California power station raises terrorism fears

Shortly after midnight on April 16, 2013, some people snuck up on PG&E’s substation in Metcalf, California. They cut fiber-optic AT&T phone lines, shutting off service to nearby neighborhoods. They also fired more than 100 rounds of .30-caliber rifle ammunition into the radiators of 17 electricity transformers. Thousands of gallons of oil leaked, causing electronics to overheat and shut down. PG&E engineers were able to reroute power, but it was a struggle to keep the power on during the attack.

The assault lasted only 19 minutes, but it caused $15 million in damage. It also became a harsh wake-up call for energy providers, who have since become obsessed with the physical security of their remote power stations.

PG&E alone has pledged to spend $100 million to improve security at its facilities. Also, it and AT&T (T) have each announced separate $250,000 rewards to catch the attackers.

Why the alarm? Transformers are often custom designed, sometimes costing $3 million each and replacements are slow. Plus, physical attacks on energy distribution machines are much more effective at taking out the power grid than a computer hack and it’s incredibly easy to pull off, several energy utility firms told CNNMoney-CNN