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4 power substations on Washington state's electrical grid were attacked on Christmas

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

New attacks on electrical substations in the Pacific Northwest have raised concerns about a vulnerable power grid. Four sites in Washington state or broken into and damaged over the holiday weekend. John Ryan of member station KUOW in Seattle reports.

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: On Christmas morning, Jim Dye woke up and noticed the lights wouldn't go on, and he had no water.

JIM DYE: Oh, yeah. All the homes out here are all electric, and a lot of them are on wells, which mean they're electric pumps. So everybody was out of water and out of electric.

RYAN: Dye was one of close to 15,000 customers who lost power after three substations in the Tacoma area were attacked before sunrise Christmas Day. A fourth substation was damaged and set on fire later that same day.

DYE: When you have four different stations and they were all targeted, that tells me that it was not just some kid throwing a bottle over the fence. So that's the part that bothers me.

RYAN: It's unclear whether these crimes were coordinated or what the attackers' motives might be, says Darren Moss Jr. With the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.

DARREN MOSS JR: At this point, we believe their goal was to shut down the power. The reasons for that, we don't know yet. We know about similar incidents in North Carolina, southern Washington and parts of Oregon.

RYAN: Multiple federal agencies have been warning utilities of the risk of white supremacist attacks on the nation's electrical infrastructure. In February, three white supremacists from Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to a plot to attack the power grid. Following an armed attack on a substation in North Carolina in December, federal energy officials ordered a review of security measures.

The lights stay on in this country because of a system that includes more than 50,000 substations. Those scattered outposts where high-voltage power is converted to the smaller voltages that come out of your power outlets. Ross Johnson is a grid security consultant.

ROSS JOHNSON: If you were to protect every one of them to the highest level possible, it would make electricity extremely expensive.

RYAN: Johnson says substations and power lines are often targeted by thieves looking to sell copper. But he says ordinary thievery has become less profitable thanks to improving surveillance technology and a shift to a type of copper that's harder to resell. Back in Pierce County, where the grid was attacked, Jim Dye says he salvaged Christmas dinner by cooking pork bellies outside on his charcoal grill.

For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.