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Former FERC chairman describes what needs to change to protect U.S. infrastructure

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The attacks on the power substations in North Carolina remind us how vulnerable the nation's critical infrastructure is. Our co-host, A Martínez, talked with John Welling Hoff about what needs to be done to protect it. He's the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. One of his roles is to regulate the interstate transmission of electricity.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

So Jon, when we think of the United States and its power grid, I mean, what types of attacks is the power grid most vulnerable to?

JON WELLINGHOFF: Well, a lot of people immediately think of cybersecurity. But I think of physical security. And that is - one of the ones that has been most prevalent is gunfire, is actually shooting into infrastructure, into primarily large, high-power substations. There was an attack that took place in April of 2013 just south of San Jose at the Metcalf substation, where 17 transformers were actually shot out by a number of individuals that have never been caught.

MARTÍNEZ: And you were at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when that happened, right?

WELLINGHOFF: That's correct. I investigated that. I took a number of my people from the FERC out to the site, as well as a number of people from some of the special forces, U.S. special forces, who came out with us and actually investigated that incident. Somebody came within about 30 or 40 yards of the exterior fence, which was a chain link fence, and actually shot through the fence over a hundred times and hit 17 large, high voltage transformers and knocked those transformers out.

MARTÍNEZ: Jon, it seems like that would be an easy fix. Either make it harder to get close to it or provide some kind of barrier between those - the equipment and anything else.

WELLINGHOFF: Well, absolutely. I mean, it's not expensive. It's not complicated. It's not highly technical. What they did with this particular substation in San Jose, PG&E - Pacific Gas and Electric - they put a block wall around it, a concrete block wall. So that's one mitigation measure. Another one is you could use something as simple as sandbags, actually, that would protect them. But, you know, apparently, it has not been done on a wide-scale basis, as we've seen with this incident in North Carolina.

MARTÍNEZ: Why do you think that is. Considering how vulnerable they are and considering that now they are a target, why not fortify them all over the country?

WELLINGHOFF: Well, you know, there have been regulations put in place since I left FERC and made this issue public. And FERC has put in physical security standards that are supposed to be implemented and supposed to be overseen and enforced. And so, you know, the issue is discussion has to go on with the federal government, with these federal agencies, with Homeland Security and also with the states as to why they haven't done more, because, in fact, it is a relatively simple thing to do. And it's something that we should do immediately, given that we are now seeing these incidents happen. And they seem to be happening with increasing frequency.

These transformers are in the hands of private corporations, of monopolies. One of them where this happened in California was Pacific Gas and Electric. In North Carolina, it was Duke Energy, Duke Carolinas. So it is ultimately the job of those private entities to ensure that their infrastructure, that they're given a monopoly to provide service to us of a essential service, that those essential services can, in fact, continue to be provided reliably.

MARTÍNEZ: Why haven't regulators been more on this, on top of this, to just try to defend it and make sure that it doesn't happen?

WELLINGHOFF: Well, you know, I believe that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did issue a physical security standard for these types of pieces of grid infrastructure, you know? So the federal government has attempted to do what they can do. But ultimately, it's a matter of implementing these regulations and ensuring that those regulations are carried out by these private actors, as I mentioned before, these private companies that really are responsible for the infrastructure because they own it, they operate it, they maintain it.

There has to be some coordination between what the federal government does - whether it be FERC, whether it be Homeland Security or other agencies that are responsible for ensuring that this infrastructure is safe and secure - and these private owners that own this infrastructure and are responsible for actually carrying out what these regulations say. We need to step it up and ensure that these regulations, in fact, are fully implemented and the, as I say, simple actions that are relatively inexpensive are taken seriously and are carried out.

MARTÍNEZ: Jon Wellinghoff was the chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2013. Jon, thanks.

WELLINGHOFF: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESK SONG, "LEGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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