Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Queens Blackout

Investigations of the July 2006 Queens blackout are getting underway.

The scope of the outages and brownouts in Con Edison's Long Island City network, which at times affected over 100,000 persons, was not known for days. The lack of accurate communication is the source of considerable dissatisfaction on the part of local and state officials and others concerned about public health and safety. Previously, the PSC faulted Con Edison for poor communication with the public in connection with the 1999 Washington Heights outage.

Community groups, including Power For the People, have protested the outage and are seeking reforms.

Maintenance and Investment
Much attention will likely be paid to the record of Con Edison maintenance and investment in infrastructure. According to the Times, reports to the PSC filed by Con Edison show that the area where the outage occurred "has been problematic for years. It had some kind of breakdown 71 times in 2005 and 60 times in 2004, more than any other Con Ed underground network in both years." Blackout Area Has a History of Breakdowns

In the 1999 Washington Heights outage case, a PSC staff report stated that "Beginning with the 1994 through 1998 period, the [Con Edison] budget instructions reveal the company's growing concern with being prepared for competition.... Con Edison reduced its budgeted operation and maintenance expenses over the period Staff reviewed and even underspent those budgets in 1995, 1997, and 1998." A PULP report shows that in the years after the Washington Heights outage, Con Edison continued to reduce budgets for Maintenance Programs -- and then underspent those reduced budgets.

FERC and NYISO Warned of Blackouts the Week Before the Queens Outage.
Other areas for investigation include whether there were any unusual conditions or disturbances in the portions of the electric grid under Con Edison's control, beyond very high load conditions that would be expected in hot weather. In the week preceeding the blackout, on July 12, 2006, the Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the CEO of the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) testified to Congress that New York City was at increased risk of blackouts, load shedding and price increases due to the outage of two Con Edison transmission lines, one of them between Westchester and Queens.

The FERC Chairman testified
"During the last two weeks, two of four major transmission lines into New York City from upstate New York have failed. They will be for some time. Our Division of Reliability is consulting closely with the affected transmission owner to ensure that the outages have no reliability effects. Nonetheless, the loss of these two lines means that New York City as well as Long Island will be tested during any periods of sustained hot weather."
The NYISO official, in charge of the high voltage grid in New York state, testified
"the possibility for voltage reductions or controlled, localized load shedding remains somewhat elevated under extreme weather or the loss of additional facilities."
The next day after this testimony, Greenwire reported
"two 345 kilovolt lines in New York failed, one on June 24 and the other on June 28. The outages took the capacity of the four-line system that imports power from upstate New York to the high-demand centers around New York City and Long Island from 3,400 megawatts to 2,000 megawatts."
On Friday, July 14, the New York Post reported that "Con Ed Vows No Power Cut to the People," and that there would be no customer bill impact due to the transmission line outage.

Wholesale electricity spot market prices for New York City July 17 at 4 PM, set on July 16, "more than doubled to $295.85 today, from $113.31 on July 10," according to Crains. According to a Con Edison exhibit in its last rate case, Con Edison buys about 40% of the energy for its customers in the NYISO spot markets.

On Sunday, July 16 Con Edison - the day before the outage - notified the PSC that it was opening its emergency command center. According to testimony of the PSC Chairman, at p. 10, such notification to the PSC occurs when there are "significant power outages, injuries, shocks, accidents, and unusual events."

On Monday, July 17, a 27 KV feeder in Queens failed at 3:50 P.M., and subsequently other feeders failed, resulting in outages. The chronology of the feeder failures is set out in Con Edison's report to the Mayor. According to the report, all the feeders were operating within rated capacities at the time of failure. This report identifies the time certain feeders and equipment failed but does not indicate the root cause or causes of the failures.

A History of Misoperation?
A 2003 PSC decision indicates that when a Queens power plant unexpectedly shut down in 2002, there were allegations that Con Edison "misoperated" its system, and that it should have been able to weather the disturbance in the high voltage system without the widespread customer outages that occurred. The PSC did not decide the issue.

The Times reported that early in the crisis, "Con Edison did not shut down the western Queens network, even as 10 of 22 feeders failed, and other equipment kept burning out." The Times in another story reported that "In 1999, in Washington Heights and Inwood, Con Ed, faced with failing power, shut down the entire network serving those neighborhoods, causing a blackout for 200,000 but also saving equipment from further damage and allowing for a relatively smooth return to normal power."

In the 1977 blackout litigation, the state Court of Appeals found support in the record for a claim that Con Edison had not operated its system reasonably and had not shed load at a critical point when the system was unbalanced due to a lightning strike that put out transmission lines in Westchester. That decision indicates that although Con Edison had been directed by the Power Pool grid manager to shed load by blacking out areas temporarily until sufficient power was available to replace power lost due to the transmission line outages, Con Edison did not shed the load and a widespread blackout followed.

Customers can recover some losses, for example, for food spoiled due to the lack of refrigeration due to the outage, under current Con Edison tariiffs.

Con Edison may also face potential liability to customers if gross negligence is proven. After the 1977 New York City blackout, a jury found Con Edison grossly negligent and liable for damages, and the verdict was upheld by the state's highest court in Food Pageant v. Consolidated Edison. Also, the City of New York won damages in Koch v. Consolidated Edison. Although gross negligence requires proof of more than ordinary negligence, a lesson of these cases is that juries and courts may expect a utility to exercise a very high level of care in the operation of its system.

For more information, see PULP's Queens Blackout 2006 web page

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