The Silicon Valley power substation that was attacked by a sniper in April 2013 was hit by thieves early Wednesday morning, according to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, despite increased security.
The substation, near San Jose, Calif., is the source of energy for thousands of customers, and the idea that it was the target of a well-organized attack, and that it might have been disabled for an extended period, raised anxieties about the possible broader vulnerability of the grid. The attack this week did not involve gunfire, and it did not seem intended to disable the facility.
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Early Wednesday, an unknown number of thieves cut through a fence and made off with power tools, a pipe bender and ground compactors used to smooth out dirt after excavations, said Keith F. Stephens, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric. The substation has an alarm system, but the “fence alarms that went on overnight were not reacted to or addressed in an appropriate manner,” Mr. Stephens said. He added that the problem was a result of “human error.”
The company has not determined the value of the items taken. The intruders did not appear to try to damage operating equipment, Mr. Stephens said.
Damage to the system was the intent in the 2013 incident, but the circumstances remain murky. That attack is still under investigation. The company offered a $250,000 reward around the first anniversary this year for information, but it did not receive any tips and has not paid anyone.
In the 2013 attack, shots were fired into the radiators of giant transformers, disabling but not destroying them. Two manhole covers were removed, and communications lines were cut. The utility said damages came to $15.4 million. Some of the transformers were repaired using components borrowed from other utilities; others had been nearing retirement anyway and were replaced.
This year, Jon B. Wellinghoff, then the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has jurisdiction over grid security precautions, said the attack was “the most serious domestic terror attack on the grid.” He later backed away from that characterization, saying, “I don’t think there’s any need to have any particular label on it.”
Mr. Wellinghoff, a lawyer who has since left office, said that several people were involved in the shooting attack and that the scene had been scouted in advance by someone who left piles of rocks to mark where snipers would have the best vantage points.
But Laurie Smith, the Santa Clara County sheriff, said that her deputies had spent days at the scene and had not seen any such piles of rocks. And security experts said that the manhole covers could have been lifted by a single knowledgeable person with the proper tools.
No one has publicly claimed credit for that attack.
On Thursday, Mr. Stephens said that the theft early Wednesday had involved “likely more than one individual.”
Substations and other grid assets are mostly unguarded and unguardable, spread over vast areas. But concern about attacks, either physical or digital, has led to widespread participation in emergency exercises. In May, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, an industry group that sets standards that become mandatory when approved by the federal regulatory commission, proposed new physical security standards.
Common security measures include alarms, cameras and fences to obscure lines of sight to some equipment. But the distribution system is designed around the principle that unexpected mechanical failures are a certainty, so some redundancy is built in.