Blackouts, Shutoffs, & Explosions, Oh My!

Below is a history of grid failures, as well as some context about what led to those failures and how Con Ed reacted. Taken together, they paint a picture of deliberate neglect by Con Ed, fueled by a narrow focus on short term profits and shareholder dividends.

Blackouts and Shutoffs (2019)

July 13: A power failure plunged a stretch of the West Side of Manhattan into darkness, trapping people in subway cars and elevators for a time, leaving drivers to fend for themselves at intersections with no traffic signals and eerily dimming the lights in a swath of Times Square.

July 15 & 16: On the following Tuesday and Wednesday, separate blackouts struck in Staten Island affecting over 5,000 New Yorkers. Then Wednesday Morning, 1,700 Brooklynites were blacked out in Bath Beach and Gravesend. And, Wednesday night, there were blackouts for 1,176 Bronx customers, and 1,049 Flushing, Queens residents. (There were even more blackouts after this.)

Con Ed claimed the Manhattan blackout was caused by a failure of the relay protection system after a cable was damaged at West 64th St. They paid a $5M fine for this blackout. 

  • The station that caused the blackout in Manhattan was over capacity for 6 years, but Con Ed had decided not to make the upgrades, despite receiving $350M in the last rate case for a program to modernize relay protection systems. Con Ed ultimately declined to fund the project, each year filing capital expenditure reports that showed zeros next to the program's title.

  • Problems with relay protection systems are not new to Con Ed. Investigators said failures of those systems played roles in both a 1999 Washington Heights blackout and a 2006 blackout in Queens. 

July 22: Con Ed intentionally cut power to Canarsie to prevent a larger blackout in wealthier neighborhoods.

  • Con Ed knew they would be facing capacity shortages due to heat waves. They have procedures in place to reduce voltage by 0% or 5% in most other parts of the city when the grid is stressed, but by 8% in South Brooklyn (see the graphic on page 121). This indicates systematic deprioritization of communities of color, even though areas like Canarsie have the most vulnerable heat index score (4-5).

  • Con Ed lied to elected officials such as Sen. Myrie and AM Richardson about whether power had been restored, which prevented residents who had been without power for 2 days from accessing emergency services, and Con Ed has been very resistant to answer questions about the blackouts.

Hurricane Sandy (2012)

At the time Hurricane Sandy hit New York, Con Edison’s electric distribution systems were in a weakened condition due in part to the Company’s lockout of its field and operations staff during the summer of 2012.

The storm took advantage of an electrical infrastructure weakened by years of poor investment choices. We know this because a few months after the storm, the Utility Workers of America, the union negotiating with Con Edison, released a report on the company’s operational practices, alleging that “Con Edison appears to operate its electric distribution system based on a policy of “run it until it fails.’

The company used to have a policy of keeping a “safety stockpile” of basic supplies on hand in the event of an emergency. No longer. So when Sandy hit, Con Ed ran out of utility ladders and utility cable. It had to rush order parts that did not work on Con Ed systems, including “entire truckloads of utility transformers” which the utility could not return “because of their specialized nature.”

“In restoring service post-Sandy, Con Edison resorted to patchwork and temporary repair arrangements that it cannot now revisit and correct due to documentation gaps, further weakening the system. This situation raises significant service reliability concerns going forward.”

Like many utilities, Con Edison relies on mutual aid workers to restore service. However, our experience has been that many of the workers brought in to assist with restoration efforts lacked both fundamental training on working in an urban electric distribution system environment, as well as the equipment needed to provide meaningful assistance. Worse, our understanding is that mutual assistance workers are continuing to conduct activities on the Con Edison system that should be done by the Company’s full-time, in-house workforce.

The state mandated that Con Ed perform a $4M study on how to improve reliability during heat waves and other extreme weather events by 2014. They still haven’t completed it.