Con Ed lesson from Hurricane Sandy: Exceed federal standards for protecting electric equipment in floods
New York Daily News, The (NY)
Lessons from the giant Hurricane Sandy blackouts of 2012 are not lost on Con Edison -- which says it needs to exceed federal protection standards for its equipment prone to storm flooding.
The company wants to spend $25.5 million from 2023 to 2025 to make its equipment in flood-prone areas safe from waters that might rise four or five feet above the Federal Emergency Management Agency's estimate of maximum flood levels.
The money would come from Con Ed's 3.4 million electric customers. The state Public Service Commission is being asked to approve the spending as part of Con Ed's request for a rate increase that would take effect next year.
In line with a federal standard set by President Barack Obama in 2015, Con Ed protected its flood-prone equipment so it'd be safe in floods three feet above the maximum levels estimated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. President Donald Trump revoked the "FEMA+3 standard in 2017, but President Biden reinstated it in May.
Con Ed now says "FEMA+3 is not high enough. The company's reasoning, stated in documents filed with the Public Service Commission: "As a result of climate change, the Company's service territory is facing an increased risk of coastal flooding."
Among the places Con Ed needs to protect from flooding at a level four or five feet above FEMA's maximum forecasts are three giant electricity substations in Manhattan near the East River. When Sandy flooded the stations in 2012, nearly all of Manhattan below 40th St. -- some 234,000 Con Ed customers -- lost power for days.
Two of the substations are on the Con Edison steam plant property on the East River at the end of East 13th St., and the third is located near the South Street Seaport. "Platforms will elevate critical switchgear components above anticipated flood levels to minimize exposure to flood waters," a document filed with the rate case says.
Con Ed began raising up its equipment to the three-feet-above-flood-level standard after Sandy, the document says. But in recent years, the company has begun installing its equipment threatened by high water another one or two feet higher, "due to future increasing vulnerability to coastal flooding."
The company's request for $25.5 million would pay for raising and protecting even more equipment.
Sandy taxed Con Ed's system like no other storm.
Its storm flood surge of more than 14 feet "exceeded all official forecasts, surpassing a reported historical record set in 1821 by nearly three feet," the company reported in 2013. The worst previous storm to affect the company's systems was a Nor'easter in 1992 that had a storm surge 4 1/2 feet lower than Sandy, Con Ed says.
More than 1 million Con Edison customers lost power during Hurricane Sandy in late October 2012 and the Nor'easter that followed in early November. Outside of Manhattan, the customers affected included 178,000 in Staten Island, 162,000 in Brooklyn, 131,000 in Queens, 76,000 in the Bronx, and 334,000 in Westchester.
Many of the outages outside Manhattan were caused by felled power lines. As part of its current rate case, Con Ed has also asked to spend $240 million to bury 24 miles of overhead wire around its system.
Coastal flooding isn't the only danger, Con Ed says. "[H]istoric torrential rainfall, such as that experienced during Hurricane Ida in [September] 2021, puts unit substations outside of the floodplain at risk of flood damage," says the document filed with the current Con Ed rate case.
Ida knocked out power to 32,000 Con Edison customers.
The utility's request for money to better protect its equipment stems from a 2019 state-ordered study of its vulnerabilities to climate change that is "the gold standard for the industry," said Michael Gerrard, a Columbia Law School professor who helped advocacy groups prod the company into doing more to protect its electricity transmission equipment.
"The climate vulnerability study demonstrated to nobody's surprise that the seas are going to keep on rising -- more winds, higher temperatures," Gerrard said. "All that has to be prepared for, including the heat."
Gerrard said Con Ed is much better prepared for storms today than a decade ago. The company says that in the four years immediately following Sandy, it spent $1 billion hardening its system, on top of its usual capital spending for electric upgrades.
The company's current rate request is likely to be decided by January. Con Ed -- which federal data shows has long charged some of the highest electricity prices in the country -- in January 2022 proposed rate hikes that over three years would work out to 9.2% on electric bills and 13.1% on gas bills.
Con Ed's most recent rate increases, granted in 2017 and 2019, were less than the company asked for. What consumers eventually pay varies. Con Ed buys from separate generating companies nearly all the electricity it sells, and passes on that cost to its customers without markup. Generating companies sell power on an open market, and their prices fluctuate.
Though Con Ed's proposed spending on storm protection will add a few dollars to peoples' electric bills, Gerrard believes customers will find the money well-spent.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he said. "It's immensely cheaper to prepare for adverse weather effects than to clean up afterwards."
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