AUGUSTA — The only movement on a cold January morning near Central Maine Power’s Albion substation was snow drifting across the right of way. Then came the alarm.

Something or someone had triggered one of the motion detectors that ring the perimeter of a critical piece of Maine’s electric grid, east of Waterville. It set off a warning at CMP’s new security operations center in the state capital.

Sitting at the center’s computer console, the two Securitas security workers zoomed in with the substation’s video cameras to take a look. In an instant, they spotted them – five deer crossing the utility corridor into the woods.

But the deer could have been something else, something more significant.

In April 2013, someone attacked the Metcalf substation owned by Pacific Gas & Electric in San Jose, California. Fiber-optic cables were cut, knocking out phone and 911 services. More than 100 rounds from a high-powered rifle were fired at several transformers, causing a cooling-oil leak.

Transformers overheated and shut down, but the utility avoided a wide-scale power outage. Some experts wondered if the breach was a drill for a bigger attack on California’s grid. Despite a $250,000 reward, no one has been apprehended.

The Metcalf incident caught most of North America’s electric industry off guard. It showed that, despite steps taken since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the electric grid remains extremely vulnerable to sabotage that could potentially cut power to millions of people, for unknown periods of time.

In Maine, CMP maintains 2,300 miles of transmission lines and 300 substations that connect utilities in New Brunswick, eastern Maine and southern New England. Much of the system is in remote areas.

The attack at Metcalf raised questions about how well this system, the backbone of Maine’s power grid, is protected from various forms of attack.

Grid security is a work in progress and the 18-month-old security center, to which CMP gave the Maine Sunday Telegram unprecedented access, is a prime example. Security has become a growing concern for Iberdrola USA, CMP’s parent. A subsidiary of the Spanish multinational energy firm, Iberdrola USA has projects and companies in 24 states. It is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar effort to harden those assets against a wide range of potential assaults.

Physical attacks, though, are only one threat to the grid. Every day, cybercriminals probe for weaknesses in the computers that control the nation’s power system. In space, solar flares and other natural occurrences that emit pulses of electrical and magnetic energy threaten equipment on the grid.

Notably, Maine is the first state to pass a law to study the impact of so-called geomagnetic disturbances. An independent study, released this month for the Public Utilities Commission, concluded that Maine has “significant vulnerability” to severe geomagnetic storms that could destroy equipment and cause wide-scale blackouts. CMP submitted its own report that identified areas to improve, but not to the extent recommended by the independent study.

VIDEO SURVEILLANCE

The nation’s electric grid has expanded greatly since the 1950s and 1960s, but it was never built to thwart terrorists. CMP’s bulk power system was finished in 1971. The fences surrounding its substations were meant to protect people from high voltage, not equipment from gunfire.

CMP this year will complete a $1.4 billion upgrade to the transmission system, the largest project of its kind in state history. The latest surveillance technology is being incorporated into the new system, while older substations are being upgraded over time.

The security center currently monitors 27 substations that have been identified by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a trade group that sets standards for the industry, as critical to keeping the lights on. They are displayed on a large map on a wall-mounted video screen. Clicking on a location brings up the substation and allows operators to watch and videotape the area. A total of 160 cameras serves as eyes in the field.

These cameras can see in light and dark. They can pan and zoom up to half a mile, scanning the woods or reading a license plate.

Operators showed off some of the capabilities during the Telegram’s visit. They zoomed in to letters on a distant transmission tower at the Larrabee substation in Lewiston. They played back the video of the deer crossing in Albion. They watched a CMP truck plow snow at the Maguire substation in Kennebunk.

To open the gate at the Kennebunk substation, the plow driver needed to swipe an ID card. A total of 750 card readers now limits access to sensitive areas. Each swipe displays the employee’s photo on a computer screen, along with the location and time.

The Telegram also visited what will be CMP’s largest substation, Coopers Mills in Windsor. The new facility is far up a gated access road, not on the side of the highway, as is the current substation. Signs on the perimeter fence warn of video surveillance and alarms. Cameras are mounted prominently atop large towers along the fence line.

Locations such as Coopers Mills get the highest level of security, according to Keri Glitch, Iberdrola’s vice president for cyber and physical security. The company reviewed all of its assets in the Northeast and set priorities for spending and upgrades.

“We try to take a risk-based approach to everything we’re doing here,” she said. “We have a substantial investment we’re doing this year.”

ONGOING EXERCISES

Threats to the grid go beyond physical attacks. Nearly every week, media reports chronicle the latest hack into government and corporate computer systems. Utilities breaches get less attention, but Glitch, citing data from the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, says the energy industry was the target of 56 percent of reported cyberattacks in 2013.

That has prompted the reliability organization to conduct ongoing cyber and physical security exercises. The most recent, called GridEx II, featured prolonged, coordinated cyberattacks against automated systems used by power grid operators.

Glitch would not disclose whether CMP has been hacked, saying only that the utility has never lost control to an outside party. Iberdrola’s corporate operations in New York were the target of two intrusions in recent years, she said, but they didn’t involve the grid.

In Connecticut last year, state officials acknowledged that electric and natural gas utilities had been penetrated by cyberattacks, but that defenses prevented power outages. That news, contained in a report on cybersecurity, also noted that the region’s grid operator, ISO-New England, “is constantly being probed, as are all New England utilities, many of which have been compromised or penetrated in the past.” The report didn’t identify the utilities or provide details.

Asked about threats to the regional grid, Marcia Blomberg, an ISO-New England spokeswoman, said she was unable to elaborate on any measures.

“We have taken numerous steps to implement security measures such as redundant facilities, as well as other measures that follow industry best practices,” she said. “We are continually working to improve our security measures as cybersecurity threats evolve.”

DANGER OF SOLAR STORMS

In 1859, a solar super storm hit Earth. It was so strong that people in Boston could read the newspaper outside at night. Northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba. Sparks flew from the equipment of telegraph operators.

This geomagnetic disturbance, the biggest on record, was dubbed the Carrington event. It was named after a British astronomer who made the link between solar flares and the events on Earth.

Solar flares are intense bursts of high-energy radiation from the surface of the sun. At extreme levels, they can cause electromagnetic disturbances on Earth, interfering with radio and phone communications, as well as electric transmission lines.

There was no electric grid in 1859. If there had been, experts say, it would have been destroyed. And there’s wide agreement that it’s just a matter of time before another Carrington-level storm takes place. The probability of such an event, the potential impact and the cost of providing various levels of protection are being studied and debated now in Maine.

No one disputes that solar storms occur frequently. CMP receives periodic alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Environment Center’s Office when magnetic disturbances are being forecast, along with the predicted level of activity. Most are routine, like a forecast for rain.

Some solar storms, however, are strong enough to have consequences. In 1989, a storm caused relays to trip across Hydro Quebec’s transmission system, leading to a nine-hour outage for 6 million people. That storm also damaged equipment across North America, including a transformer at a nuclear power plant in New Jersey.

A more recent example: In 2012, operators of the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire were forced to reduce power during a solar storm. It happened just as the grid was under stress during a July heat wave.

In 2013, the Maine Legislature asked the PUC to identify the most vulnerable components of the state’s transmission system and the cost of various protection measures. The focus was on the effects of geomagnetic storms and electromagnetic pulses, which are bursts of energy that can damage electronic equipment including transformers.

A driving force behind the action was former Rep. Andrea Boland, a Democrat from Sanford. She has a deep interest in technological risks and had previously sponsored a bill to put cancer-warning labels on smartphones. In her view, utilities should be required to install neutral blocking devices – basically, giant surge protectors – that would protect essential equipment, such as transformers at substations. These transformers cost millions of dollars and could take months or even years to replace, if damaged.

“We have a grave threat that is big enough to see and understand, and small enough to fix,” she said.

“The alternative is the continued high cost of reacting to lower levels of solar storms, and suffering a catastrophic event predicted to bring the end of society as we know it.”

Boland’s concerns are shared by the New Hampshire-based Foundation for Resilient Societies, a nonprofit scientific research and education group. It did its own study in 2013 on the risk to Maine and the New England grid from solar storms.

Protecting the most critical equipment on CMP’s grid would cost a fraction of a percent of the $1.4 billion in ratepayer money CMP is spending to upgrade its transmission and distribution systems, according to William Harris, the group’s secretary and director. Harris, an international lawyer who has worked on arms control and energy-policy issues, said it’s ironic that the project’s parallel transmission lines form a better “antenna” for solar storms, making the system even more vulnerable. Installing protection from these storms, he said, also may have a secondary benefit.

“If Maine decides to protect its high-voltage transformers from solar storms, this will also protect those same transformers from man-made EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack,” he said.

These and other issues were considered in two studies completed this month for the Maine PUC.

The conclusions of CMP’s study are measured and cautious. It used recently available computer software to model the impact of storms at various levels. It found that protecting the system from higher geomagnetic levels, through various improvements to transformers, relays and switching devices, would cost up to $46.4 million.

CALL FOR URGENCY

But CMP also pointed out that adding these protections in Maine could have limited value, unless other Northeast utilities did the same. It noted that government and industry standards to assess and improve the grid have been proposed on a national level. For those reasons, CMP hasn’t incorporated neutral blocking technology at its new substations.

“Because our grid interconnects with others, all GMD mitigation must be coordinated,” said Gail Rice, a CMP spokeswoman, using the acronym for geomagnetic disturbances. “If one utility installs equipment that is not used or is not compatible with equipment on another utility’s grid, it can cause problems.”

But a report by a Minneapolis-based consulting firm, Emprimus, called for a more urgent response. Emprimus develops solutions for geomagnetic and electromagnetic disturbances and wrote its report in partnership with CMP and Emera Maine.

“The Maine grid has significant vulnerability to severe GMD storms,” as well as electromagnetic pulses, the report says.

What’s the probability of a major solar storm?

“New independent findings by several scientists now show that a Carrington-type severe solar storm could well be a one-in-50-year event, rather than the previously understood 100-year event,” Emprimus said.

The report says the grid can be easily protected from geomagnetic events with high-voltage neutral blocking at just 12 substations, which would protect 18 transformers. Electromagnetic protection can be achieved with 30 transformers, 12 of them outside of Maine. This protection would cost between $6 million and $12 million, the company says.

Emprimus also makes this cost-benefit analysis: Loss of revenue in Maine from a 24-hour blackout could be $5.76 million. Permanent damage to 10 transformers could run $50 million, with a replacement time measured in years.

Fred Faxvog, the study’s author, said Maine is particularly vulnerable to solar storms, partly because it’s closer to Earth’s magnetic poles. The company’s senior technology consultant, Faxvog said Wisconsin is the only state to try to protect against the potential impact of geomagnetic events. A transmission company there is testing a neutral blocking system at a substation.

Faxvog said it makes sense to install cost-effective solutions now, rather than to continue debating the magnitude of the threat.

“The U.S. has not experienced an extreme solar storm since our power grid was created,” he said in an interview, “so we can only extrapolate and model the grid to determine the consequences when the next extreme storm hits the Earth, which will eventually happen.”