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Regulators get few answers from Duke about substation attacks

Duke Energy executives Rodney Hutcherson, Sam Holeman and Bonnie Titone answered questions from North Carolina utility regulators Monday about the Moore County substation attacks.
North Carolina Utilities Commission
Duke Energy executives Rodney Hutcherson, Sam Holeman and Bonnie Titone answered questions from North Carolina utility regulators Monday about the Moore County substation attacks.

Duke Energy officials faced questions from state utility regulators in Raleigh on Monday about the Dec. 3 attack on two electrical substations in Moore County. Three Duke executives offered few new details and still aren't saying publicly what the attack might cost customers.

About 45,000 customers lost power after someone shot up the two substations about 12 miles apart in Moore County, about 100 miles east of Charlotte. Duke Energy also shut down a third substation to prevent further damage.

Utilities Commissioner Floyd McKissick asked Duke Chief Information Officer Bonnie Titone if it was true that the attacker or attackers seemed to know what to shoot to inflict the most damage.

"Because of the investigations going on, we don't want to speculate or talk publicly about that. It's certainly something that they're using in that investigation, which I can tell you is ongoing and being done thoroughly," Titone responded.

She and other Duke executives gave similar answers when asked what equipment had to be replaced and what security measures Duke has taken since the incident. The FBI is leading the investigation along with state and local officials, Titone said.

"We are collaborating with them on a daily basis in order to ultimately figure out who was the culprit for this particular situation," Titone said. "And it has the utmost attention on the senior leadership level of Duke Energy."

Last week, the FBI issued an alert and wanted poster seeking information about the incident. An FBI spokeswoman said Monday that the agency is seeking search warrants, including for mobile phone records that could provide leads in the case. ThMoore County Sheriff's Office has not named any suspects and also has continued to appeal for tips.

Third substation shut down

At Monday's utilities commission meeting, Sam Holeman, a Duke Energy vice president for Transmission System Planning and Operations, described how they learned about the attacks and responded.

"The Duke Energy Progress Energy Control Center began getting alarms that indicated to us that there were abnormal conditions at the West End and Carthage substations in Moore County. These indications informed us that there was equipment in the substation that was no longer operable, and it resulted in the loss of about 100 megawatts (of electricity), which translates to about 45,000 customers out in Moore County," Holeman said.

The Carthage substation went out at 7:12 p.m. that Saturday night, Dec. 3. The second went offline at 9:17 p.m. In between the attacks, at 8:36 p.m., Duke system operators shut down a third substation.

"We knew it was on the same side as one of the substations that was damaged. We did de-energize, to prevent further damage or potential damage to the equipment that was affected," Duke Energy's vice president of construction and maintenance, Rodney Hutcherson, told regulators.

Holeman said Duke quickly organized two responses. One was to address the damage at the substations and the other was to assess whether the incident posed any threat to the wider East Coast electric grid.

"And we determined this did not, at any point, pose an electrical threat to the broader Eastern Interconnection (grid) from an electrical reliability and electrical stability perspective," Holeman said.

Commission chair Charlotte Mitchell asked Hutcherson for details about the damaged equipment and repairs. He declined to give details.

"There was a lot of equipment damaged. I think that we appreciate the question, but there's a lot of investigation going on from a federal level. And we probably would like not to comment on the answer at this time until they have a little more time to assess the culprit that did this," Hutcherson said.

McKissick asked Titone what Duke is doing to prevent future incidents like this one. She gave no specifics but said:

"Like always, we take learnings as threats change throughout the year. We have to change our strategy in order to handle any of those incoming or emerging threats. I think this would be no different. We would take information into that and reassess how we're doing, whether it's our business continuity planning our exercises, so we would take any of those learnings and modify our strategy going forward," she said.

Titone also noted that investigators in Ridgeway, South Carolina, are investigating gunshots fired near a Duke hydroelectric plant last week. But she said there does not appear to be a connection to the Moore County attacks.

Duke Energy customers will likely end up paying for the attacks through higher rates. The company still isn't putting a price tag on it. A similar incident in California nine years ago cost $15 million.

Hutcherson said Duke hopes to have an estimate later this week.

Mitchell, the commission chair, thanked Duke for its efforts to restore power by Thursday. "I can imagine that it was a very scary situation for those customers down in Moore County to go through. So I want to thank you all for getting them back online relatively quickly, in light of what happened," she said.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.