The Long Emergency begins?

SUBHEAD: In NYC Con-Ed fights to keep lights on. Is this what the beginning of the 'Long Emergency' looks like?
Image above: Con-Ed Headquarters in NYC (center rear) with Zeckendorf residential towers in foreground seen from Union Squire. Juan Wilson worked on 3D modelling of building for Davis-Brody & Associates in the mid 1980's. From ( By Patrick McGeehan on 7 July 2010 in New York Times - (

From the 19th floor of Consolidated Edison’s headquarters in Manhattan, generators were dispatched to supplement a burning substation. Emergency alerts were relayed to major customers and companies. The go-ahead was given to cancel Little League night games on Staten Island to conserve the wattage used by field lights.

Con Edison, with an ability that might strike some as Big Brother-like, even exercised its ability to periodically shut off central air-conditioning units in some 20,000 homes and businesses to ease the burden on its system.

The scene inside Con Ed’s command center showed both the urgency of the utility’s efforts, and the nature of its reach — this was one of the few times it has adjusted residential thermostats from afar — as it struggled to cope with another record-setting day of heat and demand.

On one giant screen on the west wall, the number of megawatts being consumed was teetering at a dangerously high level, reflecting the unyielding heat, which again broke the daily record as it hit 100 degrees.

Another screen displayed real-time information revealing the spots — isolated, for now — where customers had lost power. And where there were problems, a Con Edison supervisor’s name would be affixed to it, for all to see at the afternoon emergency briefing.

From Con Edison’s base of operations in Rye, a plea rang out: “I would like to request another 4kv generator to support this grid because it doesn’t look like this section’s coming back any time soon.” That was Anthony Suozzo, a general manager of electric operations, asking for four kilovolts; he was dealing with a substation in Westchester County that had just caught fire, knocking out power to more than 1,700 customers.

So it went throughout the area, as accommodations were made to try to avert brownouts or blackouts. Horse racing at Belmont Park was called off. New Jersey Transit canceled some morning trains. Amtrak warned customers of delays on its Northeast Corridor service on Wednesday because trains were operating at reduced speeds.

There were reports that a woman who died in Queens on Tuesday was the first heat-related death in the city, but officials had not confirmed that. A spokeswoman for Charles S. Hirsch, the chief medical examiner, said that the woman’s autopsy would be conducted on Thursday.

As the temperature hit triple digits for the second straight day Wednesday, memories of the catastrophic failure of part of New York City’s power grid in 2006 were still vivid inside and outside Con Ed’s makeshift command center near Union Square.

In Astoria, Queens, business owners and elected officials remained wary about the utility company’s methods and its ability to keep the lights and air-conditioners running through a suffocating heat wave. Having endured the wrath of customers who suffered four years ago through that local blackout, which lasted more than a week, the dozens of Con Edison officials in the command center were intent on responding to signs of trouble as soon as they appeared on the giant charts projected on the wall.

As the number of equipment failures mounted by the hour, Con Edison turned to outside contractors for help. Unable to borrow crews from neighboring utilities that were coping with the regionwide swelter, the company brought in independent wire stringers who had been working in Massachusetts.

“No utilities are giving up their crews today,” said John Miksad, Con Edison’s senior vice president of electric operations.

Con Ed was using all available tools for suppressing demand for power throughout its service area. For a second day, it had put all of its emergency programs into effect, which combined to cut usage by about 400 megawatts, according to Mr. Miksad. With them, consumption peaked just below 13,000 megawatts on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. Without them, it would easily have surpassed the all-time high of 13,141 megawatts, he said.

One lesser-known contributor to the savings was a program that allows Con Ed to reprogram the thermostats in about 20,000 homes and businesses. Those customers are equipped with central air-conditioning systems controlled by thermostats with small antennas.

In times of unusually high demand for electricity, Con Ed tells Carrier, the maker of heating and cooling systems, to send a radio signal that causes those thermostats to cycle on and off every 30 minutes. Doing so shaved about 25 megawatts off the peak demand this week, Con Ed officials said.

“A megawatt here, a megawatt there can make a difference on a day like today,” Mr. Miksad said.

At the 311 help-line center in downtown Manhattan, the number of calls rose with the mercury. Calls came from seniors looking for the closest cooling center, and from parents looking to have nearby fire hydrants fitted with sprinkler caps. (In the last six days, 311 received 4,226 calls related to gushing fire hydrants — the highest category by far.)

Still, considering that fewer than 4,000 customers had no power at 4 p.m., when it was 100 degrees, New Yorkers as a group had little reason to complain. But they complained anyway.

At the Igloo Café in Astoria, the owner, Harry Panagiotopoulos, said he believed that Con Edison had reduced his power a few days ago. What else, he said, would explain why his thermostat read 86 degrees at noon, when he had it set to cool the place to 69?

“A lot of people walk in, they turn around, they walk right out,” Mr. Panagiotopoulos said. He said he had tried complaining to the utility but, he added, “When you’re a monopoly, a legal monopoly, you don’t care.”

Such bitter sentiments, whether accurate or not, are rampant in northern Queens, said Michael N. Gianaris, an assemblyman who happened to be having coffee in the Igloo when Mr. Panagiotopoulos was interviewed.

“The animus toward Con Edison is as raw as it was four years ago,” said Mr. Gianaris, who has been one of the company’s most vocal and unyielding critics.

Having reacted too slowly in 2006 as one overloaded cable led to another and another, Con Edison is now straining to prove that it has learned some lessons from the disaster in Astoria. Back then, the company failed to recognize the severity of the problem it faced and vastly understated its effects.

“We’re much more proactive with communications now,” Mr. Miksad said, adding that the company has developed a strong working relationship with the Fire Department and the city’s Office of Emergency Management. He also emphasized that Con Edison has spent more money rebuilding and upgrading its network in the last five years than it had in the previous decade or two.

But Mr. Gianaris said the company had still not pumped enough money into modernizing its infrastructure. He did, however, credit Con Edison with having learned from the 2006 blackout how to react faster to small failures that could rapidly lead to widespread losses of power.

“There are plenty of places that are as vulnerable as Queens was four years ago,” Mr. Gianaris said. “If they make it through this week without any major outages, it will be more a testament to the lessons they learned four years ago than the investment in infrastructure.”


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