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San Francisco power grid security questioned after PG&E substation break-in

A security vehicle and portable toilet iw seen outside of the Downtown San Francisco PG&E substation at Leidesdorff Street on Saturday. | Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Security guards and portable toilets spotted at PG&E power substations around San Francisco may be due to a recent break-in at a facility, prompting questions about security from consumer advocates in light of electrical grid attacks around the country.

According to San Francisco police, the break-in happened at 8:39 p.m. June 9 at the PG&E substation on Leidesdorff Street near Commercial Street.

“We experienced an unauthorized intrusion at a substation in San Francisco and are working with law enforcement to investigate,” said Jason King, PG&E spokesperson, confirming the incident and adding that there were no power outages related to the incident.

According to the police department’s preliminary investigation, an unknown individual gained access to the facility and manipulated a control panel for the electrical system. PG&E’s security personnel notified the FBI after the incident.

Dispatch audio from around the time of the incident described it as “sabotage” and classified it as malicious mischief or vandalism.

District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the area, did not know if guards had been deployed to other San Francisco PG&E substations but said that the incident could have been a reason to add them.

“If there are guards, I would imagine it’s not because of faulty transformers but because they had an incursion in one of their substations,” Peskin said.

When asked if the incident has prompted an increased security presence around the utility company’s San Francisco substations, King said he could not share specific security measures so as to “avoid providing a road map for anyone.”

Security guards and portable toilets have been spotted at three substations in different parts of the city.

Power Grid Attacks Across the U.S.

Recent attacks on nine substations in North Carolina, Washington and Oregon have heightened concerns over power grid security.

The New York Times reported in February that the FBI was offering two $25,000 rewards for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for two North Carolina electrical substation shootings in December and January. The January incident left 45,000 people without power for five days.

The recent attacks have made grid security a key priority for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).

“The increase in physical attacks on the nation’s electricity infrastructure highlights the need to continue assessing potential security vulnerabilities on the grid and identifying whether additional security controls are needed to more widely protect this critical infrastructure moving forward,” said Rachel Sherrard, spokesperson for NERC, in a statement.

According to one report, PG&E spent $300 million to protect substations after a San Jose substation was hit by gunfire in 2013, causing $15 million worth of damage.

The San Jose incident prompted a brief statewide evaluation of security, according to Thomas Long, director of regulatory strategy at the Utility Reform Network, a California utility consumer advocacy group.

“There was some effort by the [California] Public Utilities Commission to see whether PG&E and other utilities were engaged in adequate security for those substations, but that was many years ago, and I don’t recall there being a public investigation,” Long said.

Long questioned whether its regulators are holding PG&E accountable for properly using its revenue funded by high utility rates paid by consumers.

“I don’t know whether PG&E is doing sufficient security efforts given the money ratepayers are paying,” he said. “Our rates pay for PG&E to have these security guards at the substations.”

The California Public Utilities Commission did not respond for comment by the time of publication.

In late April, thousands of customers in Downtown and Chinatown were left without electricity for five days after a fire in an underground vault owned by PG&E at 640 Clay St. San Francisco Fire Department personnel responded in less than four minutes but it took PG&E 20 minutes to arrive on the scene.

The delay in emergency response time and power restoration prompted Peskin to call a hearing on May 18 where residents of the affected areas criticized the utility company.

“There have been numerous vault failures and with other PG&E equipment over many years,” Peskin said at the hearing. “This particular incident is marked by the fact that […] the last buildings and individuals had their power restored 123 hours later.”

Garrett Leahy can be reached at