Blackout City

Gita Subramony for Zondits, July 15, 2015. Image credit: Michael Tapp

On August 14, 2003, a sagging power line in Ohio made contact with an overgrown tree limb. The resulting short circuit managed to take out the power grid for much of the Northeast corridor and caused 50 million people in the USA and Canada to go without power on a hot summer day.

New York City was one of the affected regions. As city-dwellers realized the outage was not due to terrorism, a party-like atmosphere emerged in the city. Friends and co-workers walked the city in order to get home since the subway was nonoperational. Bodegas and corner stores sold cold drinks and cigarettes. Bars were packed with fun-seekers playing live music and drinking in the dark. There might have been people dancing in the street, even! It certainly seemed like much more fun than the blackout of 1977, where citizens were faced with widespread looting, crime, and the looming specter of serial killer Son of Sam. However, although some New Yorkers were able to enjoy the blackout of 2003, it was certainly not all fun and games.

Some New Yorkers were stranded – more than 400,000 subway passengers were trapped in subway cars in tunnels, and others were trapped in building elevators, or in traffic. The blackout contributed to eleven deaths and also an uptick in 911 calls related to respiratory problems. Additionally, the economic costs of the blackout were on the order of $10 billion. The event highlighted how sensitive and fragile our electric grid is. As a result of the outage, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was given more leeway to define standards for grid operators and enforce the rules through fines. In the years after the 2003 blackout, stimulus money was also put to use for grid modernization and “smart grid” improvements.

NYC has also experienced more localized grid problems in recent years. A heat wave in 2006 caused a blackout in Queens, where around 175,000 customers were left without power for days. Vulnerable populations such as the ill and elderly were left to languish in the heat. Businesses such as grocery stores, small markets, and restaurants lost money due to lack of customers and rotting food. Regulators’ investigation of the city’s utility company Con Edison after the event suggested that the Long Island City network that powers the affected sections of Queens had old and poorly maintained equipment that caused the failure. The investigation found that some of the equipment used in the network was anywhere from 30 to 70 years old. A combination of poor maintenance, underestimated load growth, and soaring temperatures threatened the lives and livelihoods of NYC’s residents.

However, human error and maintenance issues are only part of the problem with grid fragility. More recently, New York City experienced widespread blackouts due to the damaging effects of Superstorm Sandy. In preparation for the storm, Con Edison took some parts of the grid offline, but flooding and an explosion at a substation in Manhattan caused unplanned outages. Lower Manhattan plunged into darkness, and neighborhoods in the boroughs including Red Hook, Breezy Point, the Rockaways, and many parts of Staten Island faced devastating damage and power outages. As storms like Sandy become more frequent, our electric infrastructure will have to adapt.

As the NYC area continues to grow, demand for power will increase. At the same time, aging infrastructure and extreme weather events will continue to strain our grid. Decision-making around grid-oriented issues is at the nexus of resiliency and environmental sustainability. Energy efficiency is certainly one piece of the puzzle. By reducing our demand for power while remaining safe, comfortable, and economically productive, we help our existing power grid remain operational while contributing to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. However, the grid will still have to contend with natural disasters and extreme weather.

Increasing our distributed energy resources (DER), including clean energy resources, will help promote resiliency during power outages. Microgrids can provide power or back-up power on block or neighborhood scales, and combined heat and power (CHP) or co-generation can do the same on the building level.

Part of New York State’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative is to encourage microgrid development through the NY Prize Competition. Microgrids are able not only to operate during a power outage but also to help overall grid stability by reducing demand on the main grid. There could also be significant energy cost savings for buildings served by a microgrid.

NY Prize is a competitive bid process where communities can receive funding to engage in microgrid feasibility studies, to design systems, and to implement them. The state recently announced winners for the feasibility stage of the competition, and a map is available on the NY Prize website. A total of 83 projects statewide, with many projects in the NYC metro-region, will receive $100,000 towards a microgrid feasibility study. Projects are required to include multiple stakeholders and also local utilities.

This is the first step towards exploring a possible avenue for increasing our environmental sustainability and resiliency in the face of natural disasters. Although the microgrid competition is one strategy to change the way we generate and use power in our city, multiple efforts must work in concert to further our economic growth without killing our environment, all while keeping our communities safe and comfortable.