Carnegie Mellon University
December 16, 2022

Morgan discusses North Carolina power grid attack

Engineering and Public Policy Professor Granger Morgan spoke with CBS News about the "deliberate" attack on two North Carolina substations that cut off power for more than 45,000 people. The attack is bringing renewed attention to the vulnerabilities of the United States' power grid. 

Morgan, who chaired three National Academy of Sciences reports on the power grid for the U.S. government, said that the attack in North Carolina — where gunfire damaged equipment so badly that it needed to be replaced — shows that the government should take the threat to the power grid "more seriously." 

"We've known the power system is very vulnerable to physical attack, and we've known this for decades," said Morgan, whose most recent NAS report was published in 2021. "We've made a bit of progress, but the system is still quite vulnerable." 

The power grid is vulnerable, Morgan said, partially because of its accessibility: Many of the nation's 55,000 substations are blocked only by chain-link fences, and the equipment is easily accessible once within the fencing. In the case of Moore County, police have yet to clarify how the unidentified person or persons responsible for the attack were able to simultaneously sabotage two substations ten minutes apart. 

Part of the problem is that there is no single agency responsible for managing the resilience of the power grid. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) manages the high-voltage transmission system, but at the "lower voltage and distribution system level," states have their own regulatory organizations, Morgan explained. 

Another complication is the physical materials necessary to keep power substations up and running. In Moore County, it took about five days to get the power turned back on because equipment needed to be replaced. There isn't a lot of the necessary equipment available to spare, Morgan explained. 

In general, many problems are the result of decades-long underinvestment in the power system. The 2021 NAS report that Morgan helped author devoted an entire chapter to these underinvestments, blaming a confluence of issues including uncertainty about the future of the sector, the highly regulated nature of the industry and the need for innovation that isn't necessarily being met.

Morgan said that he hopes the Moore County situation will spur the relevant people to discuss solutions that can be made to strengthen the grid and ensure it remains secure. 

"We keep having events. It would be nice if, sooner or later, people in senior administrative positions in the federal government decided 'Alright, the time has finally come to ... see if we can work our way through this messy combination of technical and political problems that have made it hard for us to do everything we should be doing to keep the grid resilient.'"

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Morgan joins 60 Minutes to discuss the electric grid's vulnerabilities

Earlier this year, Granger Morgan was featured on 60 Minutes where he discussed the United States' electric grid, its vulnerabilites, and challenges it may face in the future. During the interview, Morgan illustrates the grid's susceptibility by pointing out past incidents where electric grids have been targeted by terrorist organizations.