Blackout 1977: Conned Again

“The blackout starkly exposed the apparent nonchalance of Con Ed itself in devising a truly crisis-proof system.”


God Gets a Bum Rap

Despite Con Ed’s claims in the wake of the blackout that only an “act of God” breached the elaborate sys­tem of defenses it had mounted fol­lowing the great failure of 1965, in fact, a crucial link in its supply system broke down in September of last year. And, astoundingly, Con Ed had no intention of repairing it until May of 1978, 10 months from now.

Officials at both the Public Service Commission and at Public Service Electric & Gas Co. — the big New Jersey utility that exchanges Elec­tricity with Con Ed — have admitted that, had this line been in operation, large amounts of electricity could have flowed into New York during the height of the crisis.

In his press conference last week, Charles Luce, chairman of Con Ed, made no mention of this line, nor indeed have other company officials. Maps issued by the company appear to depict the bro­ken-down line as if it were in operating condition.

The line in question is a 345-kilovolt (kv) stretch of cable running from the Hudson terminal of the Public Service Electric & Gas Co. across the bottom of Manhattan to the Farragut station of Con Ed in Brooklyn. At this point electricity generated in New Jersey could have been switched in massive quantities back to central Manhattan, across Brooklyn, up through Queens, and indeed could have surged powerfully through the entire Con Ed system.

The transmission cable was taken out of service on September 4, 1976, because of a failure in a phase-angle regulator, which modulates the flow of elec­tricity. Con Ed, apparently, had no standby equip­ment and did not repair the regulator because it saw no pressing need for the line. A spokesman for the New York Public Service Commission, the state regulatory agency that oversees Con Ed’s operations, pointed out that Con Ed was selling less electricity than anticipated and hence, did not push forward with the repairs.

The broken-down 345-kv line seems to have been a lynchpin of Con Ed’s system. Modern electric supply networks depend on a system for exchanging power with other utilities in a series of regional grids. In the case of Con Ed, power is, of course, to a major extent, generated by the company itself. But it is also extremely dependent on interchanges with other power grids that can feed it electricity in times of need. Thus, Con Ed can look to the Northeast, where the New England power pool can help out. And it can turn to the north, for assistance from the New York power pool.

But, perhaps most important, it can turn south to the so-called PJM interchange for a potentially huge surplus of electricity. This is a pool made up of the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In the past it has been difficult for private utility systems, such as Con Ed, to hook into the mass power blocs — the huge TVA system, the western public cooperatives, etc. — that are available in other parts of the United States. Big public systems have a hard time meshing into the private utility networks because the latter have not had transmission lines big enough to carry the electricity. It is rather like a turnpike suddenly meeting a bridle path, with a corresponding paralysis at the meeting point.

One of the results of the 1965 blackout was a consensus by state and federal government and the private utilities to see what could be done to boost capacity and better coordinate interchanges among the regional power pools and their member utilities. It should be pointed out that subsequent reforms were largely voluntary efforts undertaken by the companies. While the Federal Power Commission, which under the law regulates interstate whole­sale shipment of power, could set standards for interconnections and power pools, it has preferred to work on a voluntary basis with the private companies. It encouraged them to form advisory committees, which have laid out general plans for improvement and which the FPC endorses as a virtual national policy.

All in the Family

Over the past 10 years these reforms and guidelines have been bundled together and put out as a National Power Survey. But the informal, ad hoc nature of the proceedings, left largely in the hands of private industry, has made it impossible to tell how effective the post-1965 operation has been.

Last week’s blackout starkly exposed the apparent nonchalance of the Federal Power Commission, the state Public Ser­vice Commission, and Con Ed itself in devising a truly crisis-proof system.

Consider the Con Ed system. In essence, the company operates a transmission loop. Power from New England and the New York power pool can surge down through Millwood in Westchester, where it is joined by power produced by Con Ed’s Indian Point plant. In addition, two lines — one 500-kv and the other 345-kv — can send electricity out of the PJM pool into a substation at Ramapo on the New York­–New Jersey border, and hence to the Con Ed main line at Buchanan. This, then, is the main highway for electricity, whether purchased from outside or produced by Con Ed, and it pours straight down into the main Con Ed service area that culminates in the huge New York market.

Obviously, this is only part of the system since a cutoff of supply would leave the city helpless. So there is a bottom to the loop, consisting of two transmission lines. One of these is a 230-kv cable that attaches the PJM system to New York via Linden­-Goethals (Staten Island) Brooklyn and then into the rest of the system. The second point at which the loop is closed is the previously mentioned 345-kv line between New Jersey and Brooklyn.

What happened last week was that the “act of God” — lightning — effectively closed the northern corridor. Since the 345-kv had been broken down and unre­paired since September 1976 — and since the company’s generating facilities could not be brought on stream fast enough — the pressure to supply the loop fell largely on the Linden-Goethals line. In effect, this cable became the lifeline to the PJM pool. For a time, the Long Island Lighting Company was also able to put electricity into the city through Jamaica. But the Lilco system was no match for the occasion, especially since it is interconnected to power in the Northeast through a relatively small cable under Long Island Sound.

Consequently, Lilco shut down supplies to New York at 9:25 p.m., and, four minutes later, the phase-angle regulator at Con Ed’s end of the Linden-Goethals link broke. Almost at once “Big Allis” at Ravenswood shut itself down to avoid burning out under the load.


If Only…

According to officials at the Public Ser­vice Electric & Gas Co., there was a possibility that, had the 345-kv line been in service to help out the hard-pressed 230-kv cable, things might have gone differently. Mr. Wei Shing Ku, transmission-planning engineer with the New Jersey utility, told us, “If we had had the two ties in service and if they did not trip during the power surge, it is possible you could have alleviated the blackout.”

The question for the various investiga­tions now under way is why the Federal Power Commission did not insist on an adequate interchange system.

The same question can be more severely posed to the Public Service Commission, which appears to have behaved in a lethargic manner. And, finally, shopowners and the citizenry of New York City will no doubt be questioning this faulty interchange sys­tem in litigation against Con Ed. Indeed, Con Ed ratepayers might legitimately ask why this line, paid for with their money, has been allowed to be out of commission for so long. They may very well also ask whether their money, which went to con­struct the Astoria 6 and Indian Point 3 power plants (taken over by the Power Authority of the State of New York) might not have better been spent on a really strong interchange system to guard against catastrophe and other acts of God.

As for Con Ed: It is too easy, in the manner of much press comment, to dismiss the utility as a hapless victim of a cabal of incompetent engineers. The fact is that, since the 1965 blackout, this company has time and again vigorously opposed efforts within the federal government to establish a national network of regional power grids to cope with supply and de­mand in an efficient way.

Set Against Reform 

In the mid-1960s, when interchange, or “reliability” legislation was before Congress, staff aides working on the bill recall that Con Ed opposed it on grounds that it would impede the company from doing what was needed. This same legislation, fortuitously, is emerging this week from the house commerce committee. Con Ed officials cheerfully told us on Monday that the bill “wouldn’t affect us,” because Con Ed was “solidly interconnected.” The spokesman went on to declare the company was opposed to the legislation because, as he put it, reliability was tied to rates, and in that case, the state regulatory commis­sions do the most “efficient” job. In a roundabout way he was echoing what all private utilities have said since the early part of this century. They do not want federal intervention in their areas where they have worked out comfortable relationships with state bodies.

What Is Needed Now

It is almost a waste of time to investigate the rusted, archaic structure of Con Ed with a view to ever putting it in reasonable running order. The basic problem is to reduce the consumption of electricity and at the same time, wherever possible, move toward the introduction of alternative en­ergy sources. These alternatives — and here we are thinking mainly of solar, small-­scale hydro, and wind — should be taken up through a decentralized scheme, imple­mented in the City of New York neighborhood by neighborhood. It is hard to believe, no matter how much goodwill the officials of Con Ed might have, that they can run a profit-oriented company based on reduced sales. And reduced sales is precisely what is needed.

We are not talking about reducing the supply of electricity to poor people or small businessmen or, indeed, to middle-class residential users. We are talking rather about cutting back consumption by the huge office buildings, which are the real gluttons of electricity in this city.

The best thing for New York would be for the city council to initiate a study on the feasibility of taking over Con Ed. As events in San Francisco have shown, it is not necessary to purchase all parts of the system outright. Those features of the Con Ed apparatus that are of use to the citizen­ry can be leased for some period of time.

A new public organization needs to be set up to design and implement an energy system for the city. This would involve phased introduction of solar and wind energy. As the City of Hartford now illustrates, it is quite possible to create munici­pal organizations that put unemployed peo­ple to work in the construction, installation, and maintenance of all sorts of solar plants, and in the introduction of insulation.

Overall, New York should increasingly be looking toward an energy system that employs a strengthened electrical-inter­change grid to back up alternative means of energy production. There will always be people — even in the midst of a blackout — ­who declare such proposals to be rankly utopian. Even as they despise the future (which is, for anyone looking around the U.S., not so far distant) they should contemplate what the current policy portends: increased means of electrical production, both within the Con Ed area of operation and within the region as a whole. Such means will include nuclear power and reintroduction of coal-fired electricity gen­eration, with attendant pollution. It also will undoubtedly result in the development of offshore oil and gas, with concomitant processing industries onshore.

Filth at sea will be married to filth on land. Where maps from the National Insti­tutes of Health now show eruption of cancers of all sorts in the refining and chemical industrial areas of New Jersey, similar charts for the last quarter of the century will surely reflect the spread of this disease from New Jersey’s cancer alley all around New York and the North­east.

The blackout revealed the city to be at a crossroads in energy policy and at a politi­cally apt time.

Let the Candidates Speak

Every mayoral candidate should be compelled to set forth a coherent energy program for the future of the city. Energy has far greater importance than many of the issues on which candidates have been quick to take positions. A reasonable cam­paign plank should begin with a program of public takeover of Con Ed and include a detailed plan for introducing alternate en­ergy. Such an energy policy should contain a general outline of what the candidate sees as the future industrial base of the city. The provision of such an energy policy would be a speedy way of assessing just how pro­gressive each candidate is in areas of vital concern to the city’s future.


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 15, 2020