Las Vegas Sun

June 25, 2024


Call attacks on the US power grid what they are: Domestic terrorism

MGM Resorts Mega Solar Array Launch

Yasmina Chavez

A closeup look at the solar panels used for the MGM Resorts Mega Solar Array during the launch of the 100-megawatt solar power facility Monday, June 28, 2021. The solar array facility will produce up to 90 percent of MGM Resorts Las Vegas daytime power.

In the frenzy of fearmongering over a Chinese spy balloon last week, charges were filed in a more active threat to the safety and security of the United States. On Monday, Federal law enforcement officials charged two people with conspiring to “completely destroy” the power grid of Baltimore.

One of the two people charged is a founding member of a neo-Nazi group who previously served time in federal prison for bomb making related to a 2017 plot to destroy electrical infrastructure, including a nuclear power facility.

His release after just five years underscores the need for Congress to immediately reclassify attacks on the U.S. power grid as acts of domestic terrorism.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, attacks on the power grid are rapidly accelerating across the country. In 2022, there were three times the number of actual physical attacks and acts of sabotage reported on power facilities than the year prior. Among the 26 incidents included attacks in North Carolina and Washington state that left tens of thousands of people without power.

A Jan. 3 attack on the MGM Resorts Mega Array in North Las Vegas carried the trend into 2023.

While motivations for specific individual attacks may vary, white-supremacist and other militant nationalist organizations have spent the past decade openly advocating on social media for attacks on power substations.

Brian Harrell, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, told CNN, “There’s no doubt in my mind that 2023 … is probably going to be the most catastrophic when it comes to the uptick of DVE (domestic violent extremist) attacks on electricity infrastructure. A number of individuals and extremist groups online right now have already signaled that this is a part of their playbook.”

The U.S. has been lucky thus far. While December’s attack in North Carolina left more than 40,000 people without power, it did not set off the type of cataclysmic chain reaction that could have led to cascading power outages across the entire Eastern Seaboard.

However, as residents of the Northeast learned in 2003, a small local blackout can rapidly spiral out of control. In August 2003, during the peak of summer heat, 55 million people in eight states and Canada were without power for days after an overloaded transmission line drooped into foliage. A software bug prevented the load from being redistributed, causing the grid to fail from Ohio to Massachusetts. Coordinated attacks on a series of power substations in one area could have similar effects.

As Rutgers business school professor Victor Glass explained in his 2018 paper, “One terrorist attack away from a major national blackout,” an attack on a small group of critical substations could for weeks shut down power supplies to load centers such as cities, towns and manufacturers. That type of catastrophic long-term loss of power would be far more dangerous than a simple blackout. It would cripple the U.S. economy and pose a direct threat to our national security and American lives.

Reliable electricity is essential for the U.S. communication, health care and economic systems. While the government mandates that certain facilities used for military and health care purposes have backup power generation capabilities, they are generally designed for short-term use. Moreover, most Americans and most American businesses don’t have access to backup generators.

A large-scale blackout would grind commerce to a halt and immediately threaten the lives of the elderly, disabled and those with medical conditions that require reliable refrigeration, kidney dialysis or other technologies. Communication would be crippled as everything from cellphones and computers to radios and television rely on electricity to function.

Spreading chaos is exactly what far-right home-grown terrorists want. They dream of riots in the streets and imaginary race wars that they could capitalize on. Of course, they underestimate Americans, who pull together in a crisis.

During the rolling blackouts that hit huge swaths of California when Enron decided to pull the plug on the state, people conducted themselves in orderly and even noble ways. Grandmothers took on directing traffic in intersections without lights, children checked on their elderly neighbors and no violence broke out. Yes, it was horrible and disruptive, but people worked together despite the far right’s hateful fantasies.

But of course, a sustained outage on a large scale is a catastrophe in a thousand ways that don’t involve civil unrest. Had the Baltimore plotters been successful, some experts say the city could have been without power for more than a month.

Unfortunately, power substations are difficult to protect. Despite legislation proposed in several states, in a country as geographically large as the United States, it is not reasonable to expect 24-hour on-site security at each of the country’s 55,000 power substations.

What is reasonable is to treat attacks on U.S. energy infrastructure as domestic terrorism, increasing the resources available to protect critical infrastructure and to investigate the causes and perpetrators of these dangerous attacks.

While current law allows for stiff penalties of up to 20 years in prison for those convicted of plotting to destroy a power substation, it leaves few options for federal officials seeking to take down the organizations behind these plots. By classifying these crimes as acts of domestic terrorism, additional resources could be made available for rooting out violent right-wing extremist groups and other groups that plot to destroy U.S. energy infrastructure.

Similarly, state and local governments, as well as energy companies, would qualify to seek additional resources and assistance to secure locations designated as critical for national security.

Perhaps most importantly, by calling out these attacks as acts of domestic terrorism, perhaps we can finally shift the narrative surrounding violent extremists in a manner that recognizes the direct threat these organizations pose to the American people and economy.

Individuals and organizations that threaten the stability of the U.S. power grid are terrorists. It’s long past time that we recognize them as such.