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Undermanned, Overpriced And In The Dark

Fallen tree on the B-Q line of New York City subway due to the high winds of Tropical Storm Isaias.
Downed tree after Tropical Storm Isaias blocking an above-ground subway track in Brooklyn.
Photo by Marc A. Hermann, courtesy the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York.

The last of the lights are finally coming back on in metropolitan New York and the rest of the Northeast, more than a week after Tropical Storm Isaias did what tropical storms and other coastal weather events regularly do in the region.

The blackouts that cut off power to more than 300,000 customers of Consolidated Edison – and several million across the region – could be considered an act of God. But the extended, uncomfortable, costly and (for vulnerable individuals) dangerous stay in the dark was in fact a function of math. Simple math, at that.

Consider: When then-Hurricane Isaias was approaching the Florida peninsula, Florida Power & Light marshaled a crew of 10,000 repair workers at staging points across its sprawling service area. It lined up another 3,000 workers, many from its sister company Gulf Power, on standby.

FPL provides power to approximately 5 million customers along most of the state’s Atlantic coast (except for metropolitan Jacksonville) and to part of the peninsula’s Gulf coast. The cost to households averages around 10 cents per kilowatt hour, below the national average of about 13 cents. FPL provides this service over a storm-hardened system that includes thousands of extra-tall concrete utility poles that keep important circuits away from many hazards and allow faster restoration of wires that succumb.

Con Ed delivers power to around 3.5 million customers in a compact territory that includes New York City’s five boroughs and adjacent Westchester County. It only sells power to around 2.8 million of them; it delivers power from third-party sources to the rest. The cost of comprehensive service to a Con Ed household is more than 25 cents per kilowatt hour. The delivery charge alone equals the total charge an FPL customer pays.

Con Ed only had 1,000 workers on hand when Isaias approached. It brought another 600 of its own employees onto the repair crews when the storm created far more damage than forecast, and scrounged a few hundred more from other utilities under mutual aid agreements.

But it was still vastly undermanned. Crews can only repair utility poles and lines at a certain rate. Con Ed appropriately prioritized critical facilities like hospitals, and households with vulnerable individuals who needed powered medical equipment. Then it focused on restoring large apartment complexes and other customer clusters, to get the greatest number of households back on line as fast as possible. That, too, is logical and reasonable.

But inevitably, it meant customers in low-density neighborhoods – which includes most of Westchester and outlying parts of the outer city boroughs – were last. Those are also the most heavily treed areas in the region. Isaias struck after a night of rain softened the ground and when the trees were in full leaf, making them particularly vulnerable. These relatively low-density neighborhoods are mostly served by old, wooden utility poles. From a power-failure standpoint, Isaias was a near-perfect storm. It created the most widespread disruption in the utility’s service area since Hurricane Sandy, although Sandy’s storm-driven seawater cut service to about three times as many Con Ed customers as Isaias.

Across much of the Northeast, the story was the same: too few workers on hand to address too many distinct service failures, despite the higher-than-average rates that customers in the region pay.

Back in Florida, where I pay my FPL bill cheerfully every month because I know quite a bit about the alternatives, we caught a break. Isaias stayed off our coast and kept its worst weather over the Atlantic until it moved ashore in the Carolinas. We never lost power. Soon after, some of our utility crews were dispatched to New Jersey to help with the restoration effort there.

We Floridians are always grateful for the crews who flood into our state to help when we take a pounding. But the most effective help is self-help. Utility customers up north deserve a lot more of it than they get.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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