The Politics Of the Power Grid…

Fall Fire - The Rockefeller Preserve
Fotos on the Fly – Fall Fire at the Rockefeller Preserve…
November 6, 2012
Long Island Sound - Larchmont NY
How bad was it? Sandy’s storm surge in perspective..
November 11, 2012

Downtown White Plains NYBefore I utter one more word, I will say the obvious – the devastation of Hurricane Sandy has been overwhelming. Three branches of my family have strong roots on Staten Island and I also have a 90-year-old aunt who resides in New Jersey.  The loss of life, livelihoods and life savings is unfathomable and close to my heart.  None of what I am about to write regarding the power grid is meant to take away or diminish the scope of the tragedy.

The above photo was taken last Saturday night.  It was taken of the heart of downtown White Plains.  Note that there are lights burning brightly.  The people inside those buildings are undoubtedly warm and comfortable.  They have lights, heat, hot water – all the basics we generally take for granted.  Contrast that to my  trip home down Ridgeway in suburban end of town. It was so inky dark that I was counting exclusively on the beams from my headlights to slice through the darkness.  There would be an occasional break in the darkness when I would see light coming from a home that had a generator.  But for the most part, the entire area was shrouded in the same darkness that it had been for the past five nights since Hurricane  Sandy had slammed into New York.

When finally arrived home, I was grateful that mine was one of the few blocks in the suburban end of town that had retained power.  I was thankful for two reasons.  I know I was very lucky – this time.  My home has been prone to extensive outages in the past so I knew I was in the “line of fire”.  The second is that my experience with outages taught me one thing:  once you lose power, you generally will not get it back for at least a week.

For God’s sake bury the #$#!ing Wires!

And that is what sets me and others on the southern suburban end of town  apart from my friends who live in the downtown.  Although they live just two miles away from me, when they lose power, they expect to get it back tout suite.   An outage lasting more than 24 hours is unthinkable if not unfathomable to them.

So what makes that part of town so different from my area that seems to suffer from at least 1-2 major  power outages lasting upwards of one week per year?   The answer is that they buried the wires for the downtown population while the residents in south end still have the bulk of their electrical grid on spindly and very vulnerable poles.

I checked on the status of some former clients and friends…and guess what??? Everyone who lived in areas where the wires were buried had power.  The results were far more problematic for those who had their electricity delivered on poles.  One friend of mine STILL does not have power after 10 miserable days.

Its time for a concerted program to systematically bury the #$#!ing wires.  It won’t happen overnight – but as we gradually lay out the new grid, the more vulnerable areas will be more easily as more and more of the grid becomes less vulnerable. If we had started such a project 5 years ago, we would be much further along in the recovery process than we are now.  We need to start NOW and there should be no more hemming and hawing.

Burying the wires is not a trivial issue…

There are elderly, frail, infirm people with special needs who haven’t had power in freezing weather for 10 days now.  Something like this can have grave implications and create serious complications for those who are not hail and hardy.  This is a health and sanitary issue and it is something that simply shouldn’t happen – particularly with the lead time Con Ed had for this particular storm.

Third World America….

When I was a kid, a power outage lasting more than a couple of hours was a rare occurrence and was certainly not typical or expected.  A 24 hour blackout would have resulted in hearings and disciplinary action for the utility.  Last summer I was at Coffee Labs  and I heard two high-school kids talking.  “Well, it wasn’t so bad with this last storm…we only lost power for 4 days!”  When I was their age, I could not conceive of a 2 day blackout let alone 4 days not being so bad.

So when the pessimists among us say that  we are degenerating into a third world nation – I would say that we are already there.   If our utility companies can not be relied upon to maintain the grid and fix power outages in what is a reasonable amount of time – say 48 hours – then we are living in a 3rd world nation.   The deterioration is brutally obvious to anyone over the age of 40 who has lived in Wetchester a good chunk of their lives.

“But its too expensive to bury the wires!”

That’s what they said about the NYC subway system, the interstate system, Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge and any number of other public works projects that helped create American Exceptionalism.   We have been resting on the laurels of our so-called “exceptionalism” and eating our seed money for decades.  The bill has come due and Westchester needs to act or watch itself deteriorate from its New York “golden apple” status to something more reminiscent of the movie “Deliverance”.

An “iffy” grid can impact home values..

In fact, its  too expensive NOT to act.  Over the past 50  years, Westchester has been a magnet for businesses and this has brought us revenue and residents.  But businesses don’t take kindly to having to work by candlelight every time we have a bad storm.  Particularly if they are paying top dollar to locate  in one of the most expensive areas of the country.  As the reputation for prolonged outages increases, business and industry will shy away from our area.  The influx of residents will decrease and that will hit homeowners right in the pocketbook when it comes time to sell their home.

A note about Con Edison…

In researching this blog I read several articles.  Con Ed pays its investors a fat 4% dividend.  It also reported a 15% increase in profits for Q3 2012 thanks to rate increases.   In fact, every time we have a big storm Con Ed  seems to come out of the woodwork with its hand out for an increase “because they need to make repairs to the grid”.  But the grid just keeps getting worse and worse.  So what are they doing with our money?  We pay the highest rates in the country and they get higher every single year while service deteriorates even more.

The deregulation of the electrical grid is too extensive a discussion for this blog, but it has created a disincentive to maintain customer service in favor of pleasing shareholders.  A couple of articles site a dramatic decrease in reliability since the mid-nineties. Even when controlling for increasingly difficult weather events, the incidents of prolonged blackouts have more than doubled.  This assessment confirms my anecdotal experiences.  It does seem more than slightly coincidental that the time frame of the mid-nineties coincides with the deregulation of our grid.

The question that must be answered is this: Is Con Edison betraying its public duty and the public trust by subjugating the needs of its paying customers to the wants and desires of its shareholders?   We must never forget that ConEd is a public utility and it has a public trust and a public  duty.  For this particular event, its performance has been 100% unacceptable. They had days to prepare and the result is that power outages continue for thousands in sub-freezing weather for over 10 days.

Further Reading: 

Adding Smarts To The Electrical Grid (NPR)

Frustration and anger mount over lingering power outages after Sandy…

The US Electrical Grid – Will it be our undoing? 

Power Grid Vulnerablility: Where do we go from here?

When customers are angry, how do companies justify shareholder payouts?

PG&E’s Power Restoration Team Diverted to New York’s Hardest Hit Areas:


© 2012 – Ruthmarie G. Hicks – – All rights reserved.

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