Questioning the Power Grid
“On average, every day, half a million people are without power for at least two hours someplace in the United States. Some of that is inevitable,” Peter Kelly-Detwiler, independent energy consultant said to MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman.
After Hurricane Sandy ripped through the tri-state area, approximately 8.5 million people were left in the dark, some for two weeks or more. The failure of the power grid and the slow restoration of electricity, heat and hot water have left many people wondering where the system went wrong and if their power loss was “inevitable.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also criticized power companies. On November 13, Gov. Cuomo issued an executive order forming a panel charged with investigating the utility failures.
Consolidated Edison (ConEd) Senior Vice President for Electric Operations, John Miksad called Hurricane Sandy “the largest storm-related outage in our history” in a press release. The power outage crisis even prompted the resignation of Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) Chief Operating Officer, Mike Hervey.
Power restoration crews face not only downed wires, blocked roads and uprooted trees, but salt-water soaked homes that could easily burn if electricity was restored.
Kelly-Detwiler, a former energy executive at Constellation Energy and contributor at Forbes.com, agreed that the storm’s scope made the problem an issue. “We had a storm that was unprecedented, had the lowest barometric pressure recorded in the Atlantic area and was 1,100 miles in reach,” Kelly-Detwiler said. “[E]ssentially we had this massive wind and water event that hit an infrastructure that’s been around, in some cases, over 50 years.”
Aging infrastructure is a national problem. Fifty-one percent of power plants across the U.S. are older than 30 years, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Kelly-Detwiler pointed to a rolling blackout in Texas last year as evidence that the Northeast hasn’t been the only place hit with electrical infrastructure failures.
One way of coping with shrunken budgets are operating systems with little or no redundancy. That means power companies cut line crews to save money instead of raising prices. In crisis events, utility companies make mutual assistance agreements during storms. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, too many regional utilities sustained massive damage for that plan to work effectively.
“They had to reach out and talk to utilities as far away as California,” Kelly-Detwiler said. “It’s a complicated system and a lot of things broke at the same time.”
More maintenance, line crews and tree trimming would raise prices for energy consumers. Undergrounding power lines as utilities have done in Manhattan would be expensive in regions like Long Island and rural New Jersey where homes are farther apart. Some analysts are suggesting an alternative solution called “micro-grids.”
“A micro-grid is essentially a generator and a hardened distribution system, to emergency services, police, fire, maybe a gas station, maybe a shelter, perhaps a grocery store. Something that helps cope with those inevitable disasters,” Kelly-Detwiler said.
Stakes are high in case the next storm is even worse. According to the Report of the Two Storm Panel, presented to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a category 3 storm could down 70 to 80 percent of trees in a state like Connecticut and cause power losses that could last for over a month.
“We have still this failure to imagine how bad it can be,” Kelly-Detwiler said. “ We better learn from this one.”