Where in the World is Con Ed?

Taking two weeks to restore power is unconscionable. It's also part of a troublesome trend of more and longer outages that point up major flaws in our national power grid. How long before we bury the power lines?

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Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, an electrical work crew from Arizona works on overhead lines on Quaker Path Road on November 4, 2012 in Stony Brook, New York. With the death toll currently over 100 and millions of homes and businesses without power, the U.S. East Coast is attempting to recover from the effects of floods, fires and power outages brought on by Superstorm Sandy.

Ten days after Sandy, I am among many thousands of homeowners in the north suburbs of New York City waiting for electricity. We have experienced nothing like the hardship of battered Staten Island and the New Jersey shore. Still, this has been more than an inconvenience. The emotional and economic costs of extended displacement are mounting, and it is fair to ask: Where the heck is Con Ed?

Busy, of course. So are we all. That’s not a good enough answer in light of how frequently lengthy outages are occurring here and in many other regions. The time has come rethink the nation’s entire power grid. That means big expensive upgrades, including burying the power lines. The cost is easily worth it.

For many of us in the north ‘burbs, the Sandy outage has a déjà vu quality. A year ago, what’s now known as the Halloween Nor’easter dumped two feet of snow on fully leafed trees, which snapped with such frequency it sounded like someone making popcorn in the kitchen. Con Ed was painfully slow to respond then, too, and at my house we had no power for five days. I personally witnessed a frustrated homeowner who had been chatting in the street physically attack a UPS driver that honked at him to move out of the way.

(MORE: Sandy: What a Coastal U.S. Can Learn from Other Threatened Cities)

Post Sandy, tensions are again running high. By my observations, linemen who have put in long hours and should be greeted as heroes may see little gratitude when the trucks finally roll in. At this point it’s simply about freakin’ time. Someone in the neighborhood has started an email campaign to unseat the town supervisor, who has been seen as uncommunicative and largely absent during the long ordeal.

After last year’s outage, I returned my next Con Ed bill—not with a check but an invoice. I crossed out the amount owed and penciled in the costs of going nearly a week without electricity—food spoilage, hotels, lost time at work. A few weeks later I received written instructions on how to formally appeal to Con Ed for reimbursement.

That exercise included gathering a lot of receipts and filling out a lot of forms, which I did. A few weeks after that I received a formal denial for reimbursement of any part of my loss. After five days without power, did Con Ed really have to put me through the ringer before saying no?

This time around I won’t bother. A quick check on Con Ed’s website shows the utility is accepting no responsibility whatsoever. From the Con Ed claims page:

“Because the severe storm was beyond our control, Con Edison is not responsible for property damage or other losses…our thoughts are with all who suffered loss during the storm.”

That last sentence is priceless. It’s meant to sound empathetic but to us powerless residents it sounds more like a heartless kiss off: Good luck kiddo — you’re on your own.

(MORE: Sandy: Devastation in Staten Island)

A lot of folks are getting the message. Demand for backup generators is through the roof. The share price of Generac Holding, a pure play in the generator business, has doubled since July.

Nationally, power failures are happening more often and lasting longer almost every year. Anecdotally, I can say that over the last 15 years outages in my neighborhood have increased from one or two every few years and lasting a day or two, to one or two every year and generally lasting two days or longer. That’s a troublesome trend.

This is hardly an isolated experience. Excluding extraordinary weather events like hurricanes and nor’easters, U.S. Energy Information Administration data show a steady increase in outages. There were 156 non-weather related outages of 100 megawatts or more during 2000-2004; such outages increased to 264 during 2005-2009. The number of U.S. power outages affecting 50,000 or more consumers increased from 149 during 2000-2004 to 349 during 2005-2009.

Storm related outages only add to the statistics, and they tend to have the biggest impact. In an August 2012 report, Weather-Related Power Outages and Electric System Resiliency, Congressional Research Services found that such outages cost the economy up to $55 billion a year and that the trend of outages from weather-related events is on the rise. Sandy alone will cost more than $50 billion. From the report:

“Improving the overall condition and efficiency of the power delivery system can only serve to improve the resiliency of the system, and help hasten recovery from weather-related outages.”

(MORE: Sandy Bump? Where Business Is Brisk After the Storm)

This report concluded, among other things, that:

  • Transmission lines should be buried.
  • Utilities should do a better job collecting and reporting outage data.
  • Recovery times would improve with federal oversight of electric company pledges to help one another in times of crisis.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates needed power grid investment of $673 billion through 2020. This princely sum underscores the shabby state of our power system, which the ASCE gives a grade of D-plus. According to ASCE:

“The needs to maintain and update existing electric energy infrastructure, to adopt new technologies, and to meet the demands of a growing population and evolving economy over the next 30 years will impose significant requirements for new energy infrastructure investment.”

If nothing is done:

“As costs to households and businesses associated with service interruptions rise, GDP will fall by a total of $496 billion by 2020. The U.S. economy will end up with an average of 529,000 fewer jobs than it would otherwise have by 2020.”

So, there’s much wrong with our power systems. Con Ed taking longer to fix my wires more often is a trifle. I get that. But the utility’s inability to act faster is also symbolic of larger problems that need to be addressed, and quickly. The next storm is already brewing.