Power stations and other critical infrastructure are being targeted for attacks at an increasing clip across the United States, leaving energy and extremism experts worried about what a potential coordinated assault against the Texas grid might look like.
Earlier this week, federal authorities announced the arrests of two members of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, accusing them of planning a series of sniper attacks intended to devastate Maryland’s electric grid. In December, power stations in North Carolina were targeted by shootings, leaving 45,000 homes and businesses without power for days.
Last year, the Department of Energy reported 25 instances of “actual physical” attacks on power infrastructure across the United States — more than the three previous years combined. One of last year’s attacks took place in El Paso.
“It’s a frightening situation,” said Edward Hirs, an energy consultant and economist and lecturer at the University of Houston. “We’ve long recognized that our electrical infrastructure is very vulnerable because it’s out in the open. It takes very low-tech actions to take down a part of the grid.”
Many of those cases are unresolved, making it difficult to discern the motivations behind each attack. But for years, far-right groups have been encouraging members to attack power infrastructure as a way to sow chaos — with the hopes of eventually heralding in a societal collapse.
“When we talk about the targeting of critical infrastructure, I think that’s truly become one of the central tenants of this movement — and not by accident,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who studies white supremacist movements. “They recognize these aren’t heavily guarded government facilities. They see the electrical infrastructure as one of the remaining weak points, and what’s challenging is it doesn’t take a hardcore violent extremist to shoot at a substation.”
“It doesn’t take a detailed plot,” Lewis added. “It takes one guy with access to tools or access to firearms to cause millions of dollars of damage or a sustained power outage.”
‘Wouldn’t be that difficult’
Texans are long used to the state grid’s vulnerabilities to extreme weather and climate change. Last week’s winter storm blanketed trees with ice, collapsing them into power lines and leaving thousands across the state, particularly in its hard-hit capital of Austin, in the dark for days
Hardening the grid against weather and climate should still be the top priority, said Joshua D. Rhodes, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in energy issues. But in energy circles throughout Texas, defending it against intentional physical attacks is becoming a more-discussed topic.
“If the pace continues to pick up, it’ll definitely need to be moved up the priority list when it comes to hardening the grid if we see some copycat activity like that here,” Rhodes said.
Power infrastructure is vulnerable to attacks because there is so much of it, with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas managing more than 1,030 generating units across the state. It’s relatively simple to use Google Maps to see where a particular power plant lies, where lines go and where your nearest substation is. And it doesn’t take much to cause significant damage.
“If you’re a good shot, even from a few hundred yards you could do real damage to pieces of our infrastructure that are really critical,” Rhodes said. “It wouldn’t be that difficult.”
A single attack against a lone substation wouldn’t be difficult for the grid to overcome. What worries Rhodes and other experts in energy and extremism is a coordinated plot against several substations at once — causing a cascading power failure that could wreak havoc across the state. That type of failure would be difficult for Texas to handle because of its isolated grid — disconnected from the rest of the country.
“It would be relatively easy to take down the Texas grid with a coordinated attack on a couple of major nodes,” said Hirs, the Houston energy consultant. “That would cripple the nation. With 26 million people without power for an extended amount of time, how many Berlin airlifts would we need? No drinking water, no ability to get fuel out of the ground. No healthcare, no traffic lights. The social fabric would be rendered instantly.”
Some low-tech measures could be taken to protect the grid, Rhodes said, including adding opaque fencing around pieces of critical infrastructure. Hirs said 24/7 surveillance is becoming more ubiquitous and serves as a relatively low-cost protection measure.
Reached for comment, ERCOT referred The Dallas Morning News to its cybersecurity page, which says the grid operator “prepares year-round for any type of threat to the electric system,” and uses industrywide security best practices.
“Whether the threat is cyber or physical, ERCOT continually invests in trained staff and resources to help keep the electric grid safe,” the page says.
Neo-Nazi group has Texas ties
Atomwaffen Division, the Neo-Nazi group whose members are accused in the recently revealed Maryland plot, was part of a wave of white supremacist groups that emerged in the mid-to-late 2010s. Its ideology is Neo-fascist and “inherently accelerationist,” Lewis said, referring to the ideology that seeks to accelerate the degradation and eventual violent collapse of government and society.
“These guys don’t want to run in elections, they want to sow chaos,” Lewis said. “In their line of logic, when the lights go out and the power goes out, they’re hoping when it doesn’t come back on you will start to see civil unrest. In that point of unrest, individuals associated with this ideology hope to use the cover of that unrest to commit further acts of violence.”
Atomwaffen is more decentralized than traditional terrorist organizations like ISIS and doesn’t function as a cohesive group — rather small sects composed almost entirely of young men who aim to be a spark that lights a fire, serving as “a catalyst for the degradation of liberal global democracy,” Lewis said.
Atomwaffen members are typically only identified after their association is revealed upon their arrest. Members have been linked to five killings across three states and a host of other cases involving the harassment of journalists, civil-rights groups and people of color.
Of the 19 Atomwaffen arrests throughout the country tracked by the GWU Program on Extremism, four members are from Texas and have faced charges ranging from receipt of child pornography to gun charges and distributing information about bomb-making.
Atomwaffen members have also picketed the Houston office of the Anti-Defamation League, pasted racist posters at Texas A&M University, and taken part in a three-day training camp in Texas, said Stephen Piggott, an expert on right-wing extremism and program analyst at the Western States Center.
Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher with the Counter Extremism Project, cautioned against prescribing unsolved attacks on power stations to a certain ideological bent. Some of the attacks could have been from people hoping to steal wire, he said, or those who are simply destructive. One suspect in an attack on power infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest that cut the lights off for 14,000 people on Christmas Day said he hoped to burglarize a business after knocking out power.
But ideas about attacks on critical infrastructure are discussed constantly in Neo-Nazi messaging groups.
“There are definitely conversations happening on Telegram and happening in places where Neo-Nazi accelerationists congregate where they are discussing these attacks,” he said, “and they’re saying, ‘What can we learn from this?’”