Four Storms in Quick Succession Expose the Flaws in New York City’s Electrical System

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Sandy’s winds shredded suburban electricity networks that run along utility poles. But the storm also devastated the mostly-below ground electric system that runs through the heart of New York City, supplying the stock exchange, the subways, and countless businesses with the power they need to run.

Now Con Edison, the utility that supplies power to the five boroughs and Westchester County (minus Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula), is examining the damage. The company is finding its 101 electric substations and 39,000 underground transformers suddenly look more vulnerable and need additional protection.

A Sudden Change in the Weather

In the days following the storm, officials emphasized the unprecedented nature of the storm. 13.9 foot tides? Who had ever seen anything like this?

A video of an exploding circuit breaker at Con Edison’s East 14th Street substation served as dramatic evidence that the surging river had over-topped flood barriers. The building was constructed to withstand tides a foot and a half higher than the previous recorded high – 11.2 feet, in 1821.

But what if Sandy wasn’t an anomaly? Con Edison’s John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations, is now looking at the storm as part of a pattern.

“Four of the five worst storms that affected our customers, occurred over the last 2 and a half years,” Miksad said.

It started with a 2010 nor’easter.  In 2011, there was Hurricane Irene a freak snowstorm right before Halloween. And then Sandy. Only 1985’s Hurricane Gloria came close to matching their destructive force.

The threat worsening weather poses to the city's electrical infrastructure is not a surprise.

A 2010 study for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority warned “energy infrastructure in coastal areas of southern New York State is vulnerable to flooding as a result of sea level rise and severe storms.”

The same year, another study, commissioned by the Bloomberg Administration emphasized the electric system’s importance: “most infrastructure in the city relies on the city’s power grid for energy, thus if it fails the other infrastructures that are dependent on it fail.”

Neither report, however, made specific recommendations.

Waterproofing the System

Miksad sees only a few strategies for adapting a system that’s more than a century old to the changing climate.

“We could raise walls, we could make equipment submersible, or we could raise the equipment itself. Those are the three possibilities,” Miksad said.

In fact, the utility has already begun doing some of these things.

Since 2007, Con Edison has spent approximately $7 million a year installing waterproof switches and making underground transformers submersible. Miksad points out it took days, not weeks, to bring power back in most places.

“That was because we had this equipment that allowed us to restore quicker,” he said.

Stephen Hammer, an author of the 2010 NYSERDA study, said many buildings need to make adaptations too – particularly those which have belowground connections to the electrical system.

“It’s where Con Edison meets the building’s internal wiring system,” Hammer said. “It seemed like some buildings that had those connections at a higher elevation came back online faster because the equipment wasn’t corroded.”

Con Edison has required that new interface equipment be installed above flood level since 1992. 

The Role of Regulators

Planners say piecemeal solutions are not enough.

Last month, leaders of environmental and civic groups sent an open letter to New York’s Public Service Commission, Con Edison’s regulator, complaining that the Commission has failed to plan for a changing climate.

“The Public Service Commission right now requires all electrical companies to have storm plans. But these storm plans are really the short-term approach,” said Anne Siders, associate director at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law, who helped draft the letter.

“[The plans are] about, ‘you know we’re going to sandbag these buildings to protect them’, or ‘we’re going to turn off power in these areas to try and protect that infrastructure.’ And they’re not the longer term questions about how we build infrastructure in the first place, or how we decide where to locate things,” Siders said.

A PSC spokesman, James Denn, insisted the Commission takes climate change seriously.

Denn pointed to a 334-page audit of Con Edison. This document refers to “risk” and “risk management” in a general way. But it leaves out terms like “climate change” and “sea level rise.”

Improving the system may conflict with the PSC’s goal of keeping electric bills low for customers. Con Edison’s John Miksad says the cost of protecting the ten substations that flooded during Sandy would be $800 million – a major investment.

“There may be some smaller fixes that we can do short term,” Miksad said. “But to make sure everything can withstand 14-foot tides, that would be the price tag.”

If New Yorkers want to be better prepared for the next big storm, they should be prepared to pay higher electric bills to pay for the additional protection.