After Moore County sabotage, how secure is N.C.’s power grid?

  • As 35,000 residents of Moore County remain without power, questions are being raised about what lawmakers in the General Assembly could do next year to address physical sabotage of the power grid or cyber-attacks.
  • Recent reports have confirmed a rising number of attacks on power-grid infrastructure across the country.

Downtown Southern Pines looks more like a scene out of an apocalyptic cable TV series than a charming, southern golf community filled with retirees and vacationers.

That’s because Southern Pines — and large swaths of Moore County more broadly — remain in the dark four days after vandals fired guns at electric grid substations to cause the outages. Around 35,000 residents in Moore County remain without power, according to Duke Energy’s outage map.

Officials confirmed Tuesday that one Moore County person died in a Pinehurst home during the power outage. Investigators are working to determine whether the death was related to the power outage. If it was, the culprits could face elevated charges that carry a sentence of life in prison.

The utility company estimated that electricity could be mostly restored Wednesday night.

Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to hold a press conference Wednesday afternoon details on the investigation, but so far officials say the attack was targeted. State and federal law enforcement officials have joined the case.

“This type of violence and sabotage will not be tolerated in North Carolina,” tweeted N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday morning.

“This is a criminal act and it appears to be a willful, intentional, and malicious act,” state Sen. Tom McGinnis, R-Moore County, told media at the press conference Sunday night. “The perpetrator will be brought to justice and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

As the search continues for the perpetrators, the attack is raising questions about power grid security across North Carolina and whether similar attacks could continue in the future. The threat not only comes in the form of physical attacks against pieces of infrastructure but in cyber-attacks as well.

“Physical attacks on electric power infrastructure and assets … are on the rise,” according to a 2021 report from SERC Reliability Corporation. The report also noted the dire threat of cyber-attacks. The group is in touch with the Moore County investigators and, in a recent report, pointed out some weak points in the system including the need for more visual inspections and photo/video record of the substations, plus better better communication with local officials before there is a crisis.

With the Moore County attacks, power grid safety could be on the agenda for the upcoming long session of the General Assembly convening in January.

“The outages in Moore County have impacted tens of thousands of North Carolinians, so we will certainly be looking at all available options to better ensure something like this does not happen in the future,” said Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, in a statement to Carolina Journal. “It remains to be seen whether this is a state legislative issue or whether it’s a federal critical infrastructure issue. As more information comes out, we will continue to evaluate potential preventive measures.”

“Just as there are evil, cowardly people who have attacked our schools, we now have people who have attacked our critical infrastructure and jeopardized the safety of innocent citizens,” added Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, in comments to CJ. “We will absolutely be looking at ways to harden our critical infrastructure. And we will do so in a way that seeks to be proactive rather than reactive, by continuing to modernize the grid and safeguarding it against present and future threats.”

“It was clear before with the Colonial Pipeline cyber-attack, but it has been made more evident, given recent events in Moore County, that our energy infrastructure is vulnerable to attacks,” said André Béliveau, strategic projects and government affairs manager for the John Locke Foundation. “While lawmakers are likely to work on several energy issues in the coming session, bringing grid security into the mix would be prudential.”

This is an ongoing story. It was updated with new information on Wednesday, December 7.