The question I haven’t heard anybody ask about today’s big NYC explosion, yet

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Why is that 1,800 buildings in New York still get their power and heat from a century-old network of steam pipes? I mean, I know it’s all about the installed base. If you currently rely on steam, it would cost a lot to switch to more modern power sources. But at some point doesn’t the system become so archaic and dangerous that it’s worth subsidizing a mass switchover?

Update: By the way, I’m sure some editor down at the NYT has already asked this question and dispatched a team of reporters to find answers. Which I will link to in the morning.

Update 2: I was wrong. The morning paper didn’t answer my question. But Curious Capitalist Senior Steam Correspondent Paul Lukasiak takes a stab in the comments to this post, and Chuck makes some good points as well. Blogosphere 1, NYT 0.

Update 3: Okay, so it turns out steam is the heat source of the future (see the comments). Who knew?

Update 4: The Times finally comes through:

As antiquated as steam power may sound, it is a vital presence in modern Manhattan. Nearly 95 percent of commercial buildings south of 96th Street use steam provided by Con Ed, including many landmarks, like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, and newer buildings like the Time Warner Center, as well as hospitals, colleges and museums.

Steam remains a constant in New York — and other Northern cities like Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia — largely because it saves space. Instead of installing boilers or other bulky and expensive machinery, landlords just need to accept a 16-inch pipe from outside the building to carry steam inside.

“Switching off steam is never going to happen,” said Steve Mosto, the chief executive of Mosto Technologies, which helps commercial landlords maintain their steam systems. “It’s as critical and inherent to the city as electricity. The price of real estate is so high that it’s not worth giving up the space to put in your own boiler or steam turbine.” …

In some ways, it is a more eco-friendly fuel, because in many cases the steam is a byproduct of electricity generation. And since steam pipes are buried, they also are less susceptible to extreme weather conditions.

“Steam was green before green was fashionable,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “I’ll take our steam system any day over the suburban power lines that fail every time there is an ice storm.”

Blogosphere 1, NYT 2 (but only because the ref allowed for way too much extra time).