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Power experts on the Brooklyn blackout: What happened and how can it be fixed?

July 22, 2019 Mary Frost
Photo by MainlyTwelve via Wikimedia Commons
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In the wake of the Brooklyn blackout of 2019, politicians are pointing fingers, customers are asking “Why us?” and Con Edison is blaming record consumption. Electrical power grid expert Yury Dvorkin, however, is not at all surprised by Sunday night’s power failure.

“A heat wave is like an invisible Hurricane Sandy. Both push the grid to the limit,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Dvorkin spoke to the Eagle about the causes of the outage, New York City’s electric infrastructure, and emerging technologies that could help reduce the regularity of power outages.

“Con Edison should be better prepared for a heat wave, since they happen once or twice a year. Sandy is once in 10 years…. Disconnecting people from the grid should be a last resort.”

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Related: Brooklynites who lost power ask Con Edison: ‘Why us?’

The investigation into the power failure demanded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio has to be “as transparent as possible,” Dvorkin insisted. Dvorkin is assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn.

“What happened, what we did … it should be itemized so a broad range of stakeholders with expertise, including academics and national labs, can evaluate what happened,” he said. “So far, Con Ed has not been transparent with stakeholders.”

Dvorkin said that the company will claim the information is sensitive, “A matter of national security. And those are legitimate concerns. But we must find a consensus on how to make an investigation of the root causes of the blackouts. That’s the way to prevent one from happening again.”

Releasing too many details might give the company’s competitors an advantage, he theorized.

“The emerging trend is to have alternative energy suppliers. Con Ed is hesitant to share information that could be exploited by a competitor and jeopardize its business model.” This information, however, “would help us find more socially acceptable solutions.”

De Blasio and Cuomo have expressed frustration with what they call Con Edison’s lack of answers, and warn that the company can be replaced.

“We’ve been through this situation w ConEd time & again & they should have been better prepared—period,” Cuomo tweeted on Sunday.

The mayor, in an interview with NY1, said, “Once again we are not getting clear answers from Con Edison. I’m very frustrated by this fact.”

Competing with smart grid technology

Dvorkin studies emerging smart grid technologies, which could allow energy customers to choose an alternative supplier or deploy their own solar panels. This is where the energy business is heading, he said.

“If all of a sudden my neighbors and I put in solar panels, it would decrease Con Ed’s revenue. It goes against their business model,” he said.

And yet, since the customer pays for the panels and the electricity generated goes into the power grid, “It’s difficult to say if distributed energy resources are a loss or a win for Con Ed. It’s a stick with two ends,” Dvorkin said. “It’s most important that no one takes the stick and beats anyone else.”

Why here?

Con Edison said that they had made a “preemptive move to take those customers in southeast Brooklyn out of service in order to protect vital equipment and to help restore power as soon as possible,” emphasizing that to do otherwise would have risked longer and wider spread outages.

Dayna Cunningham, executive director of MIT’s CoLabs, called the power outage “an unfortunate incident that meets at the intersection of wellness and climate change.” CoLabs is part of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

The issue is compounded by race, Cunningham said, as black Brooklynites represent 63 percent of those impacted.

Related: So Con Ed shut your power off? Here’s how to get some money back.

One potential solution, she said, is community-owned microgrids — a project that is presently underway in the Hunt’s Point section of the Bronx.

“Operating under the notion that infrastructure can and should be owned by the community, the grid would be locally controlled and more resilient in the face of climate events like this one and the inevitable hurricanes to come,” Cunningham explained. “Innovations like these have the potential to drive economic democracy in our communities and even save lives.”

How can Con Ed do better?

Dvorkin gives Con Edison credit for solving the power outage in Manhattan just over a week ago quickly, within four hours or so. However, he said, there are several things the company can do better.

The company could install “more cutting-edge intelligence” to better detect the possibility of an upcoming failure, he suggested.

“There are normally precursors to a failure. They help the system operator to identify something going wrong and take preventive action,” Dvorkin said. “Failure-predictive tools exist in academic circles but are not necessarily deployed in real life systems, especially in the ‘last mile’ — from the substation to the customers.”

Con Edison has done a lot of preparation work for this, such as installing smart meters, but the company needs to go further and deploy the actual tool, he said. Doing so would reduce the area where blackouts happen and the number of customers affected.

Another solution could be to deploy distributed assets as backup plans. Currently, power distribution is centralized, but “what if Con Edison had photovoltaic batteries, small gas generators and energy storage devices in place? They could have been used to supply critical loads and reduce the number of customers affected,” Dvorkin pointed out.

While hospitals and jails already have backup generators, smaller customers, such as nursing homes, would also benefit from them. Siting the power backups should be a collaborative effort, Dvorkin said. “The utility should lead the effort, because they are the only party that knows the entire grid.”

Con Edison personnel should also be training for emergency situation on simulators, he said. “There should be exercises to deal with non-standard problems.”

Roughly 33,000 customers through Canarsie, Flatlands, Mill Basin, Old Mill Basin, Bergen Beach and Georgetown lost power Sunday night, at the height of the weekend’s heat wave. Con Edison said they expected to have almost all of them up and running again Monday night.

Rate hikes?

Dvorkin said that when it comes to reliability, you get what you pay for. The functioning of the power system “is a direct function of cost,” he said.

Rate hikes need to be approved by the Public Service Commission. Con Edison said in February that it was seeking an 8.6 percent hike.

“The city and state cap the increases,” Dvorkine said. “Con Ed can only do so much.”

City Comptroller Scott Stringer said on July 18 that rate payers were already shelling out for more dependability, and a refund might be in order.

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  1. Robert R

    The problem is a private utility that is accountable to shareholders will not spend the money for infrastructure when the times are good and take the hit when the failures come. My neighborhood had a transformer blow up a few months ago and they haven’t replaced it, just bypassed it to keep the power on.
    Also, they like to run HUGE voltage reductions in working class (not upper middle class) areas. This actually strains the cables MORE, because most loads today are motors and switching power supplies, which use MORE current when voltage drops. Lowering voltage just causes them to run longer and hotter and more inefficiently. That’s not helping their already maxed out lines. Current burns up wires, not voltage!

    As for the problems of private utilities, Look at california, PGE, for years was fine, until the wildfires and then declared bankruptcy. Of course the executives got their bonuses and golden parachutes. Maybe Bernie Sanders can shed light on why privately run health insurance and utilities are more problematic than publicly run systems. LA city, a public utility had their lights on during the mass outages in California more than a decade ago, for example. Their rates are lower than the privately run utilities and they have a higher satisfaction rate. It’s not the workers, it’s the owners/management.

  2. Joseph canna

    After all the blue sky solutions offered by the professor,who is in academia not in business ,he finally gets to the heart of the matter.All the solutions.require money.Com Ed asks and is never given all requested.Con Ed would need to ask for even more money for all his proposals.Just one week before Con Ed quickly solved the outage and admitted a deficiency.Saying they are not sharing info is just political,by the terrible governor and absentee mayor,who collectively have done way more to hurt NY than Con Ed.When will they be more open with citizens.

    • The initial Manhattan blackout was caused by a failure of equipment that they had been given money in the last rate case to upgrade, which they chose not to. Did we get a refund for that money? No. But I’m willing to bet that their shareholders saw a piece of it.

  3. It is nonsense that con ed has competition. Yes you can get people to compete on electricity supply but delivery is a monopoly of one. Con ed is responsible for delivery no one else. The problem was not supply but delivery.