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Those tall metal towers that bring electricity into your home are potential targets for terrorists. In fact, some politicians say security is pretty lax around the thousands of electrical lines stretching across Arizona. They are pressuring power companies to develop new methods to guard against acts of vandalism.
You probably drive past them all of the time and don't pay too much attention. We’re talking about the electrical towers that look like giant erector set robots. Turns out you can walk right up to them.
There is a sound of rock tapping metal tower. That pinging noise is how the towers sound when you tap them with a rock. I'm joined by Diane Brown, director of the Arizona Public Interest Research Group, a utility watchdog. We are standing at the base of a tower in Mesa next to a canal and bike trail.
Actually there are a series of towers about 100 yards apart and get this: there isn’t any sign of security here, not even a fence.
"There aren’t guards around each tower. There may be certain areas with surveillance cameras that we aren’t aware of," Brown said.
She is worried anyone could climb the towers. They could unscrew the nuts and bolts or even set off a bomb to bring them down. There could be a cyber attack, too.
"It’s time for the state government, federal government to really take a look at each of the power plants in the state," Brown said. "And looking at what we need to do to beef up security."
There was not a lot of public concern about utility security until last year. That is when somebody used a high-powered rifle to shoot at transformers in a substation near San Jose in northern California. Brian Swanson is a spokesman with Pacific Gas and Electric, the company targeted in the attack.
"The gunshots caused extensive damage to 17 transformers at our substation. It took about 27 days to complete repairs, but we were able to keep the lights on for our customers throughout the repair,” Swanson said.
He said federal investigators are still searching for a suspect, but he said PG&E is making some changes.
"Immediately after the attack, we deployed security guards to provide 24-7 coverage at the substation," said Swanson. "And we worked with local law enforcement to increase patrols around the area."
What happened in California got the attention of Arizona Rep. Trent Franks. He fears a wide-spread terrorist attack on the electrical grid could cause a blackout that would leave millions of people in the desert without air conditioning in the middle of summer. He is pushing legislation that would require utilities to improve their security like surveillance cameras. Right now, only nuclear plants are required to meet federal guidelines.
"Well, I believe it’s something we as all Americans should be concerned about primarily because of the tremendous dependence we have on ready electric power. I mean it is now something that sustains us as a civilization” Franks said.
Bob Stump is chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, the state agency that regulates utilities.
“Should these transformers be taken out the grid would basically be shut down, and that’s my great concern,” said Stump.
He recently wrote a letter to APS, SRP and two others asking them to outline how they protect their power plants, substations and towers.
“I do believe we need to get some standards in place and first of all understand precisely what those standards should be. Ensure that their physical infrastructure is as safe as possible from terrorist attacks,” said Stump.
APS and Tucson Electric Power declined to comment on tape for this story. However, in a written statement, an SRP spokesman said, "We believe our protocols represent best practices and continuously improve our physical and cyber security."
It is unclear exactly how much Arizona utilities would have to pay for the upgrades, but it is likely consumers could pay higher rates and some federal money may be available.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the security concerns span the electrical grid, from power plants to transmission lines, towers, and the substations that house transformers.
Updated 3/21/2014 at 1:57 p.m.