An Unfortunate Anniversary: The 2003 Blackout, Five Years Later

Posted: August 13, 2008
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By Dr. Matthew Cordaro, and
Arthur “Jerry” Kremer

Five years ago, New York and its neighbors experienced what is widely regarded as the worst blackout in North American history. Overgrown trees in Ohio fell on three transmission lines, sparking a chain reaction that shut down more than 100 power plants and caused massive power failures throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and southern Canada.

New York City lost more than power on those two fateful days in August of 2003. The power outage cost the five boroughs more than $1 billion.

With the lights out and performances cancelled, Broadway lost approximately $1 million. The power outage also cost New York City’s 22,000 restaurants between $75 and $100 million, a result of spoiled food and lost business. Duane Reade, Inc., New York City’s largest drugstore chain, reported that it lost sales totaling nearly $3.3 million.
Additionally, the two-day blackout cost New York City taxpayers nearly $10 million as the fire and police departments and Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) worked overtime to restore power to the city.

Unfortunately, the 2003 blackout was not an isolated incident.

During a ten-day period in July of 2006, residents of western Queens experienced the longest power outage in the history of New York. A result of an extended heat wave, these ten days of power outages cost Con Ed $90 million and dramatically impacted the lives of the hard-working residents of Queens and Staten Island. New York State regulators concluded that a failure to adequately maintain, operate and oversee the electrical network was the overriding cause of the ten-day blackout that paralyzed sections of the two boroughs.

On June 27, 2007, a heat wave caused a power outage in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and The Bronx. This shut the subway down during rush hour, and left half a million New Yorkers without power.

The problems continued in 2008.

In June, a pre-summer heat wave led to a blackout in Brooklyn. New York’s subway system was gravely affected as the entire G line, which links Brooklyn and Queens, was shut down. Parts of the F and 4 lines were also non-operational, while other lines running from Brooklyn to the Bronx experienced delays.

On July 27, thunderstorms knocked down power wires and resulted in new outages within Staten Island and the southern parts of Brooklyn. This impacted thousands of customers.

And on August 2, another round of thunderstorms knocked out power in the mid-Hudson Valley, affecting thousands of residents and businesses within the region.

Power outages cripple the operations of businesses and also significantly impact hospitals, schools, offices and transportation services. With each power outage in the city, subway trains become stuck between stations; elevators stop between floors, cell phone service fails, traffic lights go out, and emergency services are often delayed. The resulting chaos affects thousands and thousands of New Yorkers.

Blackouts affect the economy and have proven to be quite expensive for all involved. It takes time to recover the millions of dollars in losses that the city suffers each time there is a blackout. In order to achieve and maintain economic prosperity, it is important that future blackouts be prevented.

Clearly, we cannot anticipate or control severe weather patterns―often the root cause of power outages― but New York is dangerously susceptible to other power disruptions. To reduce the amount and length of these costly and potentially dangerous power disruptions, New York must begin to develop new sources of clean, reliable, base load power and invest in new transmission infrastructure to reinforce the electricity grid and supply power to the areas that need it.

Since the 2003 Blackout and the outages that followed, some positive steps have been taken to bolster energy infrastructure; both in New York and throughout the country. In April of 2008, Con Ed announced that it planned to spend approximately $5 billion over the next three years to improve the city’s energy infrastructure, as well as that of the surrounding area. In 2008 alone, Con Ed spent $1.7 billion in power grid upgrades in anticipation of peak summer electricity use. Additionally, the North American Electrical Reliability Corporation (NERC) has formalized and strengthened its reliability standards, greatly reducing the potential for an event in Ohio to cause blackouts in New York State.

Following the 2003 Blackout and under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) conducted the National Electric Transmission Congestion Study, which revealed that the Mid-Atlantic and Southwest Area National Corridors face acute electricity congestion issues. The DOE designated both areas a National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor (NIETC).

The designation of these “critical congestion areas” is intended to bring action to remedy the transmission constraints, and the adverse effects they have on consumers. The NIETC designation opened the door to the New York Regional Interconnection (NYRI) project; a proposed venture to build a 190-mile high voltage direct current transmission line with a rated power flow of 1,200 megawatts. NYRI will bring electricity from northern New York to areas of congestion in the southern end of our state. The project has faced heavy opposition, and is currently under review by the New York State Public Service Commission.

Nevertheless, the challenge of limited and congested transmission remains. And until New York’s transmission infrastructure has been upgraded and more electric generation added to meet growing energy demand, the region faces the real possibility that any prolonged heat wave could result in a sustained power outage.

To responsibly address this growing problem, our state must renew the Article X power plant siting law, which expired almost six years ago. The Article X statute facilitates and streamlines the siting of new power generation facilities, ensuring that we can have the power supply to meet the demand of the future.

Additionally, the upgrading of New York’s aging transmission grid is long overdue and significant infrastructure investment is necessary to facilitate the flow of electricity from new sources of generation to consumers throughout the state. In order to provide reliable electric service for customers and prevent further blackouts, Con Ed’s continued investment in the power grid is crucial.

Promoting the development of smart, renewable energy sources like hydro and wind is also critical. Although renewable energy sources will never be able to supply a majority of our demand for energy, they can support the power grid and reduce our reliance on older plants that burn fossil fuels. But while the promise of renewable energy may eventually yield new jobs and greater independence from foreign energy resources, it must be recognized that significant challenges must be overcome before renewable energy sources can become a substantial component of our energy supply.

Keeping our current, clean and base-load nuclear power plants, like Indian Point online is now more important than ever. Nuclear energy is clean, efficient, and safe, and plants like Indian Point provide vital energy that helps meet growing energy demand while producing zero carbon dioxide or other air pollutants. Indian Point alone can generate up to 40 percent of New York City’s electricity demand.

To protect our future, and continue moving towards a more sustainable future, our leaders must take the appropriate actions necessary to ensure an adequate and continuous supply of electricity for the residents of New York. Through continued electricity infrastructure improvements, renewal of Article X, protection of emissions-free electricity resources such as Indian Point, and continued investment in alternative energy research and development, we have an effective roadmap for success. This will protect our quality-of-life, and power sustainable growth for our region in the months and years to come.

About the authors:

Dr. Matthew Cordaro is a professor specializing in energy research and policy development at Long Island University and a former utility chief executive officer.

Arthur J. (Jerry) Kremer is a former Assemblyman and the original author of the Article X power plant siting law. He serves as Chairman of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance.

About New York AREA: Founded in November 2003, the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance (New York AREA) is a diverse group of more than 125 business, labor, and community groups whose mission and purpose is to ensure that New York has an ample and reliable electricity supply, and economic prosperity for years to come. New York AREA helps to educate policy makers, businesses, and the general public regarding the necessity and importance of safe, low-cost and reliable electricity. For additional information visit: www.area-alliance.org.