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Power transmission towers are seen near the plant of new Shin Kori No. 3 reactor and No. 4 reactor of state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) in Ulsan, about 410 km (255 miles) southeast of Seoul, September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won Power transmission towers are seen near the plant of new Shin Kori No. 3 reactor and No. 4 reactor of state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) in Ulsan, about 410 km (255 miles) southeast of Seoul, September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won  

Lawmakers urge federal takeover of electrical grid security

Lawmakers are urging federal regulators to impose national standards for protecting electrical grids from attacks.

The move comes in the wake of news that a California power substation was hit by a sophisticated assault by gunmen last year.

Republicans and Democrats both want the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to impose federal security standards for the country’s vast electrical grid. FERC has the clearest jurisdiction over grid reliability, but the process the commission must go through is slow and complicated — leading some lawmakers to argue that FERC lacks the authority it needs to protect the grid.

FERC “accept or reject—but can’t alter—proposals written by an industry-dominated group” in order to impose new rules along with the penalties to back them, reports the Wall Street Journal.

“FERC lacks the authority it needs to protect the grid,” said California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman.

“[T]he last thing I want to do is regulate any industry,” said Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks, adding that utilities need to do a better job protecting the grid in the name of national security.

Congress is discussing a plan that would give FERC the power to “write and impose interim rules on grid defenses” while still giving utilities a say in any permanent requirements, according to WSJ.

The utility industry’s main trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, says that their members are already working with regulators and local law enforcement officials to beef up grid security. California utilities, in particular, are increasing security at critical locations.

Last April, the Metcalf transmission substation near San Jose, California was attacked in the middle of the night by gunmen. The attackers cut communications to the substation, crossed a horse pasture and opened fire on the facility which sends power to Silicon Valley. In 19 minutes the gunmen unloaded more than 100 rounds in the substation, disabling 17 out of 20 big transformers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, it took utility PG&E 27 days to repair the $16 million worth of damage. So far, no one has been arrested and no charges have been brought.

Some power industry executives argue that forcing federal standards on a diverse grid system would be difficult as rural and urban areas would need different rules.

“One size fits all may not get you true resiliency,” said Lisa Barton, executive vice president of transmission for American Electric Power which owns one of the largest transmission networks in the country. “I’m not saying it isn’t worth it.”

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