It was disturbing enough that a transformer in the city’s main electrical substation exploded in a fireball on a calm April night, knocking out power for seven hours to all of Lake Worth.
But after the fire was out, crews inspecting the damaged device saw something sinister — a jagged hole that looked like it was intentionally made by a projectile, perhaps even a bullet. They also noticed holes and nicks in other nearby equipment.
Did a gunman try to sabotage the city’s electrical grid? Could the outage have been domestic terrorism?
Or was the culprit something all too familiar to long-term residents — faulty equipment?
Knowing that gunmen had attacked electrical equipment in California and Arkansas in recent years, city utility officials said the unusual circumstances around the explosion gave them no choice but to consider foul play.
“I don’t want people to think that somebody is out there attacking us,” said Ed Liberty, the city’s director of electric utility. “But we have to be open to the evidence and not rule it out because we have this obligation to try to understand, as best as possible, what happened.”
The FBI was called. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation. The damaged transformer was sent to a forensic lab for analysis.
Then, it happened again.
On the night of June 20, another fireball lit the sky over the same substation: A second transformer had catastrophically failed, causing a citywide power outage for nearly seven hours.
No suspicious holes were found on the second damaged device, which was directly next to the one that failed April 9. But that offered city officials little comfort.
More than two months later, they still don’t know why two transformers, which both passed technical tests when they were installed next to each other in March, failed without warning within a span of nearly three months.
Although PBSO investigators don’t suspect foul play, city officials say they can’t rule out an intentional act until the forensic investigations of both damaged transformers are completed later this year.
“There’s too much evidence leaning both ways,” said Walt Gill, assistant director. “Until the final report comes out, I’m not going to hang my hat either way.”
‘They are sitting ducks’
If it was foul play, it wouldn’t have been the first time someone intentionally tampered with the city’s electric utility.
Last year, someone with an imaginative mind hacked into a database of pre-written public alerts, which are automatically posted online when the power goes out. During Hurricane Irma, an alert blaming an outage on “extreme zombie activity” was caught by city officials before it posted online.
But eight months later, the same zombie alert somehow made it online long enough during a 30-minute outage in May for residents to see it. It went viral, resulting in international headlines and lots of laughs.
The city still doesn’t know who was responsible, but the zombie alerts seemed like a fitting metaphor for the utility’s troubled past. For decades, Lake Worth has struggled with problems on its power grid — from sporadic outages to aging equipment, all generating sharp criticism from residents fed up with high rates and spotty service.
Utility officials say they are making strides to improve service. But because of that troubled history, they can understand if some longtime residents might have been skeptical when sabotage was first mentioned at a public meeting in July as a possible cause of the April 9 outage.
But the other troubling reality is that attacks on power stations in North America are not unheard of. Many are the result of vandals making mischief or bored hunters taking pot shots at tantalizing targets on utility poles, incidents that rarely make headlines.
Others, though, have been more serious.
In April 2013, a gunman with a precision assault rifle fired more than 100 shots at an electrical substation in San Jose, Calif., causing millions of dollars in damage to 17 giant transformers that feed power to Silicon Valley. Officials at Pacific Gas & Electric avoided a blackout by rerouting power around its Metcalf substation, but it took 27 days to bring the station back to life. No arrests were made.
Although the FBI ruled out terrorism, Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, disagreed and called the Metcalf attack “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.”
That same year, transformers and power stations in rural Arkansas were targeted in three consecutive attacks that led to the arrest of a local man who the FBI said acted alone. And in October 2013, members of a drug cartel used guns and Molotov cocktails to attack 18 power stations in Mexico, knocking out power for 420,000 people for 15 hours.
Those attacks highlighted what utility executives and federal energy officials have worried about for years — that the electric grid is vulnerable to sabotage, said Tom Carlton of Illinois-based Infrastructure Defense Technologies.
From large transmission towers to power lines attached to poles, most electrical equipment sits out in the open, often in remote locations, protected only by chain-link fences.
“They are what we in the homeland security defense business call ‘soft targets’ because they are unprotected by security personnel,” said Carlton, whose firm specializes in perimeter security.
“They are sitting ducks, every one of them, for the most part.”
Installed in March
The two transformers that exploded at Lake Worth’s Hypoluxo substation were inside a large rectangular area surrounded on three sides by 20-foot cinder-block walls and on the north side by a 6-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
The substation is often referred to as the city’s “tie-in line” because it’s the only location where city power lines tie in with the Florida Power & Light transmission system that winds throughout the state like an interstate highway network. It functions as an off-ramp from FPL’s main lines, distributing 138,000 volts through a local network of transformers to the city’s main plant and, ultimately, to 27,000 customers in the city.
The transformers that exploded in April and June are connected to the substation, but they are used only to measure the amount of electricity, or electrical current, coming in from FPL. Technically called “current transformers,” they’re casually referred to in the industry as CTs.
Each is about 8 feet high with a skinny ribbed porcelain body topped by a square tank covered by a protective weather dome, bearing an abstract resemblance to a robot.
The ones that exploded were made in 1995 by GEC Alsthom. They had been used for years at other locations in the city without incident before being moved into storage, said Liberty, who in August 2017 became the city’s 13th electrical utility director since 1995. He did not know when or why the transformers were taken out of service.
They were re-installed at the Hypoluxo substation in March along with a third CT, each mounted next to the other atop 10-foot-high steel pedestals.
All three passed mandatory technical tests before they were put back into service, said Liberty. And the two that experienced sudden catastrophic failures showed no signs of an impending problem, he said.
Did someone fire a shot?
At 11:14 p.m. on April 9, one of the three CTs exploded, plunging the city into darkness. Minutes later, utility crews from the city and FPL arrived at the Hypoluxo substation and saw flames leaping from the top of the transformer.
When the device cooled down to allow a safe inspection, a crew member in a lift bucket discovered a large hole on the side of the protective dome atop the transformer. The hole faced north toward a tree line visible through the chain-link fence.
“Inside that bowl you see this thing that looks like a softball-size chunk and that lined up with the hole on the side,” Liberty said. “It looked like somebody took a shot at it. It looked like a projectile had gone through it.”
They also noticed two small dents on a copper pipe, 25 feet above the ground, that supplied power to the transformer. And on the chain-link fence, they saw bullet holes on metal informational signs, holes that lined up with the damaged transformer.
“Your first reaction is to look around and make sure no one out there is aiming a gun at you. You’re hoping whoever did it is not around,” recalled Michael Jenkins, the city’s energy delivery manager, describing the reaction of many of the 20 utility crewmen on site that night when gunman suspicions were first raised.
The next day, Jason Bailey, senior system operator for Lake Worth, called the sheriff’s office and reported that the transformer looked like it “had been tampered with.” Deputies notified the FBI, following protocol with suspicious incidents to public utility equipment, but the agency held off on getting involved and told PBSO to investigate, Liberty said.
The large hole on the side of the transformer’s dome “raised the suspicion that the transformer may have been purposely targeted and shot at with an unknown firearm,” according to a PBSO report.
On April 12, detectives inspected the substation. From the ground, they noted that the dents on the copper pipe “appear to have similar indentations consistent with a metal projectile striking another metal object.” Citing danger from the high voltage lines, deputies said they could not look closer to confirm whether or not the dents were made by bullets.
Deputies canvassed the substation and the surrounding field for shell casings but couldn’t find any. They also spoke to the residents of three nearby homes. None reported hearing gunshots, but they did recall hearing “a loud boom” and seeing the transformer on fire.
A search for shell casings in the neighborhood came up empty. And PBSO records showed no calls about gunfire in the area that week.
No evidence of a crime
Deputies also went to the city’s utility yard on Second Avenue North, where the damaged transformer had been taken earlier that day. They found no indications of damage from an outside projectile. The edges of the hole in the protective dome were “peeled outwards indicating an extreme pressure build up internally from an explosion,” the report said, contradicting the initial assessment by utility workers.
“On one side of the housing there is a large hole not consistent with an impact from a bullet. I could not find any fragments inside the housing, which would be components of a bullet such as copper jacketing or pieces of a lead core,” an investigator wrote.
Liberty said he doesn’t dispute PBSO’s report, but he said he and other utility officials thought parts of the hole looked like they peeled inward.
Bailey told deputies he still thought the damage to the CT “appeared suspicious.” He explained that when a transformer fails, monitors at the utility’s operations center would have shown a steady drop in power prior to the failure. In this case, he said, the power flow had been normal until the moment the device exploded.
The report makes no mention of the bullet holes on the metal information signs attached to the chain-link fence, but Liberty concedes that those holes might’ve been there before the CT failed.
PBSO filed the case as “an information report until further evidence is presented that a crime was committed.”
The city sent the damaged transformer to a lab at George Tech University, called the National Electric Energy Testing, Research and Applications Center, for forensic analyses.
The final report, which will cost the city at least $18,000, is expected later this year. But a preliminary draft doesn’t mention an outside projectile as a cause and instead points to an internal failure with the device.
Oil samples from the transformer, taken by the city, showed moisture that had somehow breached the device. That moisture may have caused insulation material inside the CT to deteriorate, generating combustible gases, according to a draft summary of the preliminary report.
But city officials say there’s no way to know when or how the moisture got into the oil. It could have come from rain that fell on the damaged CT after the explosion but before the transformer was removed from its pedestal. And while the moisture might have gotten in before the explosion, as the NEETRAC draft summary indicates, city officials say they saw no signs of leakage on the device when it was tested and installed.
Before NEETRAC finished its preliminary report on the April 9 incident, the second transformer exploded. City officials saw no suspicious marks on that device, but they are sending it to Georgia Tech for analysis, too. That second CT also had signs of moisture breach, according to oil samples taken by the city.
The city’s third CT was taken off line as a precaution. The city has ordered four new ones at a cost of $50,000. Until they are installed later this year, FPL has agreed to temporarily take over the role of measuring the amount of current the city takes from the substation, Liberty said.
Later this year, the city will replace the chain-link fence on the north side of the substation with another concrete block wall, meaning the entire substation will be protected in a roofless tomb 20-feet high.
City officials hope the final report rules out sabotage, which the preliminary report did not do.
“You’re trying to walk a fine line and not panic the population,” Liberty said. “But no data told us ahead of time that the device was about to fail and suddenly it fails. And we have evidence suggesting an outside cause.
“We don’t know what it is, but it’s certainly not something that should have happened.”