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Con Ed Power Squeeze
With supplies tight, outage fears return
By WILLIAM SHERMAN Daily News Staff Writer
Con Ed acknowledged last night that its supply of electricity is stretched "to the outer limits" raising fears that last summer's cascading blackouts could happen again.A nationwide energy crunch and a shrinking electricity market have strangled Con Ed's power supply, holding it flat at about 13,700 megawatts.
Meanwhile, demand in the city has increased by about 1.5% from last year siphoning energy from the flat supply, with no new energy sources available.
The power squeeze, coupled with the questionable state of the utility's infrastructure including the city's 89,000 miles of feeder transmission cables means increased prospects for a very long, hot summer.
Residents of Broadway and W. 160th St. wait for Con Ed to restore their power. Just last month, Con Ed reassured the city of a carefree summer. "Our system is in very good shape," Con Ed spokesman Joseph Petta said then. "We're feeling very confident."
He added that if this summer brings a repeat of last year's scorching heat and temperatures, the equipment is "ready for the load."
While Con Ed officials yesterday pooh-poohed the seriousness of the "beige-outs" that began Monday night on the upper East Side and continued into the morning with a Manhattan-wide power dip, they conceded that supply has become a critical issue.
"It's tight very, very tight," said Bill Donohue, the utility's senior vice president of electric operations, specifying that "there is enough to meet the predicted demand."
Donohue and Petta explained that since Con Ed sold its own power plants over the last several years, it has to buy electricity in apportioned amounts from a consortium of power producers known as the Independent System Operators, with plants as far north as Canada.
The utility typically reduces electricity by 10% to 15% to all customers in an area at risk when demand outpaces the available supply. That results in a brownout, including reduced power to air conditioners and televisions.
And with the tight supply, New Yorkers and others in the Northeast can expect big jumps in their electricity bills this summer.
"Electricity for New York is a commodity just like any other," said Ashok Gupta, senior economist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "and the increased demand translates to a couple of hundred megawatts that we do not have."
"There will be brownouts; there's now an increased likelihood of local brownouts," he said, citing a "hot day in early May when the commodity price of electricity jumped one-hundredfold, from 3.8 cents to $3.80 for a kilowatt hour."
And despite an investment of $100 million this year in transmission cable repairs and other systemwide overhauls, a key Con Ed official said that there were "numerous failures" in feeder cable tests conducted this spring.
"We tested 266 feeder cables out of 1,159 in the city, and, on average, each one failed an average of 1.5 times before it worked," Donohue said.
He explained, for example, that sections of cable were tested, could not conduct electricity, were repaired and were retested until they functioned properly.
"I don't have the failure numbers, only that each only failed to work 1.5 times in the period of repairs until they passed the tests," said Donohue.
It was a massive feeder cable overload and burnout triggered by an electrical fire in the Sherman Creek power substation that caused the blackout last July 6 that affected more than 200,000 northern Manhattan residents.
However, Donohue said much of the infrastructure at that substation has been redesigned and replaced.
"After what happened last summer, we developed an incremental $315 million program to improve the system over five years," he said.
"This year, we're installing 135 miles of new underground and overhead cable, we've reinforced 30% of all the feeders in the system, and we've replaced and upgraded 170 transformers through the system that's three times the amount normally done."
However, critics of the utility, including Mayor Giuliani, were not satisfied with steps taken by Con Ed to improve the quality of its service.
"I was displeased with Con Ed yesterday," Giuliani said. "Had we known earlier they had a problem, we could have deployed police, deployed firefighters and helped to ameliorate some of the burdens for some of the buildings that had to cut off power."
Giuliani was referring to service cuts at six buildings in Carnegie Hill on Monday night after the failure of three of 28 feeder cables that serve Yorkville.
In that episode, which began about 7:45 p.m., Con Ed also asked two area hospitals and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to switch to their own power generators as a precaution to ensure that those buildings would not experience any power dips.
With JoAnne Wasserman
Original Publication Date: 6/28/00
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 28, 2000