Three Duke Energy executives sat before the North Carolina Utilities Commission Monday to answer questions about the shooting of two electric substations in Moore County that cut off power to tens of thousands of residents last week.
The commission, which regulates public utilities in the state, inquired about the attacks’ cost, substation security, and whether the perpetrators had intimate knowledge of power grid operations.
Those seeking definitive answers will have to wait as the three Duke executives repeatedly said they didn’t want to speculate while the investigation surrounding the incident continues. Power has been restored to 45,000 customers in Moore County, but local, state and federal authorities have not named any motives or suspects in the incident that disrupted daily life for several days.
But during the commission’s staff conference, which was scheduled before the Moore County attack, the executives did address some of the circumstances around the attacks, their scope and their potential connection to another recent shooting at a Duke facility in South Carolina.
Substation security not regulated
On the evening of Dec. 3, between 7:30 p.m. and 8:28 p.m., Duke began receiving alarms of “abnormal conditions,” at two Moore substations said Sam Holeman, the company’s vice president of construction and maintenance. The alarms indicated equipment failures, which resulted in the loss of around 100 megawatts of electricity.
While Holeman acknowledged this affected around 45,000 residents in Moore, he said the attacks did not threaten the broader power grid at any point. He commended the many Duke Energy employees living in Moore County who simultaneously worked on restoring power while being directly impacted by the outages.
Duke executives said their company has around 2,100 electric substations statewide.
Substations are vital parts of the wider power grid. They are where utility companies transition high-voltage electricity from towering transmission lines and prepare it for use in neighborhoods. Many sit behind chain-link fences, with neither the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission nor the state utilities commission setting security requirements for these facilities.
“The Commission expects the utility to provide adequate, reliable service, but there is no current Commission rule directly addressing substation security,” Commission spokesperson Sam Watson told The News & Observer.
Over the past decade, these substations have become more common targets, including by members of domestic extremist groups.
Asked about any link between the Moore shootings and last week’s reported shooting at a Duke hydroelectric dam in Ridgeway, South Carolina — about 70 miles south of Charlotte — Duke Energy’s chief information officer Bonnie Titone told the commissioners that “the initial feedback from (law enforcement) is that it is not a related incident.”
Potential cost to Duke (and to customers)
The North Carolina Utilities Commission is a seven-person body appointed by the governor and confirmed by the North Carolina General Assembly. Each commissioner serves a six-year term.
One of their main responsibilities is to negotiate rate cases with investor-owned electric utility companies, primarily Duke Energy. Rate cases determine the annual return on equity Duke can earn. In recent years, Duke’s rate of return has been 9.6%.
The costs Duke incurred in Moore County will likely be passed on to customers, said Commissioner Floyd McKissick Jr. during his questioning. After thanking Duke for its work to restore power, he asked the executives if they could estimate how much that total amount would be.
“We’re still trying to assess all of the costs,” said Rodney Huterson, Duke’s vice president of construction and maintenance. “We’ve moved pretty rapidly to get the customers restored, and I have some time later in the week to discuss how much exactly it costs.”
McKissick also asked Duke whether it is evaluating steps to minimize the risk of similar physical threats to the grid going forward.
“That’s something we’re certainly looking at,” said Titone. “We’re going to take the lessons learned out of this and come up with an action plan, but it’s just too early to talk about the details associated to that point.”
McKissick then asked whether there were indications that whoever is behind the attack had “unique knowledge relating to the operations of the substations.”
Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks had previously stated the “intentional impact on the substation, damaging multiple pieces of equipment in the substation.”
Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields had previously said the shooters “knew exactly what they were doing” to dismantle the substations.
“Right now, obviously because of the investigations going on, we don’t want to speculate or talk publicly about that,” Titone said. “It’s certainly something that they’re using in that investigation, which I can tell you is ongoing and being done thoroughly.”
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.
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