Recent Blackout Points to Need for Greater Electrical Grid Reliability and Resilience

Although not as severe as the blackout that occurred in 1977, or the one that occurred after superstorm Sandy, the recent blackouts in New York City this summer demonstrate the need for greater electrical grid reliability and resilience. 

Weather-related events are the most common cause of grid failure. Hot weather increases the chance of blackouts as people draw more power from the grid to ramp up the air conditioning. As our climate becomes warmer, this may become increasingly common. 

Both reliability, the continuous supply of power from the grid, and resilience, the ability to recover quickly from outages, are important.  According to a recent Environmental Defense Fund and National Defense Resources Council report, while Con Edison has poured about $1 billion since Superstorm Sandy into installing flood protections to increase grid reliability, the recent blackouts show that more can be done to prevent power failures from sources other than floods. If utilities only protect grid failures adequately against floods, then the grid is still vulnerable to failures due to numerous other factors such as lightning strikes, overheating, and equipment failures.  

Grid resiliency can be improved in many ways. Equipment can be updated. Power generation and distribution can be decentralized. Increasing renewable energy sources adds to the resilience of a grid by ensuring that if one source goes down, others are still available. Extreme cold and wind can cause traditional energy production to fail but wind power plants can still operate successfully during these extreme weather events.  Wind power also avoids concerns about fuel delivery to power plants because it is its own on-site power supply. Solar power has similar advantages. Renewables also have the additional advantage of a lower environmental impact than traditional sources such as coal or oil. 

New York State is moving to both increase grid resiliency and reduce our carbon footprint. Thirty million dollars has been earmarked for this purpose as part of achieving the goal of carbon-neutral power generation by 2040 that is required by the recently-passed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Three billion dollars has already been invested in large scale renewable resource projects across the state. 

Five million dollars was recently been made available by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for companies to develop solutions that integrate renewable resources into the existing power grid. This will be done primarily through grid modernization. Since green power sources must be economically feasible to be attractive to power companies and consumers, proposals are being sought for techniques that lower costs of providing renewable power to customers and prevent circuit overloads. Also being sought are proposals for smart inverter improvements that convert solar power into electricity that can be used by customers. Smart inverters also allow utilities to better predict when a system needs to be shut down to prevent damage.

This month, the State Legislature and the New York City Council both held hearings on the recent blackouts to find out more about local utility Con Edison’s preparedness and grid reliability. State legislators questioned whether a transition to a public utility system would be effective. Council Members asked Con Edison about its testing protocols and which neighborhoods have a higher concentration of older equipment. Con Edison said they are planning to upgrade equipment in the areas that experienced blackouts. 

NYLCV will continue to advocate for better grid resiliency and integration of renewable energy into the grid.