PG&E will begin Metcalf substation security upgrades this year

Utility to spend $100M over the next 3 years to improve security at its substations


June 18--SAN FRANCISCO -- PG&E expects to begin security improvements before the end of this year at its Metcalf electricity substation in south San Jose and has already upgraded security at other substations in the wake of a sniper attack at Metcalf, the utility said Wednesday.

The utility intends to spend $100 million over the next three years to improve security at an unspecified number of substations, Ken Wells, senior director of substations for PG&E, said Wednesday during a workshop on the issue that was conducted by the state Public Utilities Commission. PG&E is undertaking the work in response to a gunfire assault at the Metcalf facility in April 2013, the company said.

"This event was clearly a game changer for PG&E," Wells said during the public meeting. The PUC, the primary state regulator that oversees PG&E, sponsored the meeting to provide a public forum for updates and expert views about electricity grid security.

Wells wouldn't identify which substations, other than Metcalf, would receive upgraded security measures or how many are involved in the program.

The PUC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, are both looking into the matter of security upgrades for the electricity power grid. And state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat from San Mateo County, has introduced legislation, SB 699, that would require the PUC to establish security standards for the electricity system in California.

"What concerns me is that both the PUC and the federal regulator have only started this security discussion in the past few months," Hill said in an email that was a response to a request for comment from this newspaper.

It's not enough for PG&E to state that it is spending money to improve security at its substations, Hill asserted.

"We need someone to look beyond PG&E's reassurances to see if it is taking the right steps to protect the electric grid," Hill said. "Right now, our regulators don't have a clue."

Work at the Metcalf facility and other substations is expected to include opaque fences to obscure the sites, as well as improved lighting, upgraded cameras, better coordination with local law enforcement officers, altering or removing trees and vegetation near substations, and other measures, according to PG&E.

San Francisco-based PG&E has begun preliminary work at the Metcalf station, including obtaining permits for the security improvements. Hall said security-related upgrades at Metcalf should begin "this year."

"We have begun work at some substations," Hall said in response to a question from this newspaper. He didn't specify how many substations are involved in the work. Hall added that some projects at some substations have been completed.

The threat to the U.S. electricity grid isn't likely to include extreme violence such as truck bombs, according to experts who participated in a panel discussion at the PUC workshop.

"We're not seeing terrorism, we're not trying to protect against that," said Byron Gardner, an expert in critical energy infrastructure protection with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "Shooting at substations, also penetration of substations, are what we're looking at."

Cyber attacks against electricity systems also are being scrutinized by regulators and utilities, the experts said.

It's not clear how effective PG&E's plan to improve security at the substations will be, warned Marcel Hawiger, energy attorney with consumer group The Utility Reform Network, or TURN.

"We will be looking at the $100 million that PG&E is spending to see if it is being spent wisely," Hawiger said in an interview with this newspaper.

Contact George Avalos at 408-859-5167. Follow him at Twitter.com/georgeavalos.

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