Newsday article on what Con Ed is considering re: preventing power outages
Hudson Valley utilities eye steel poles, buried cables to avert repeat of Sandy
Updated: February 11, 2013 4:13 PM
By KEN SCHACHTER firstname.lastname@example.org
Ubiquitous wooden utility poles could begin to fade into history as Hudson Valley utility companies try to "harden" their infrastructures in a bid to avoid a repeat of widespread outages from superstorm Sandy. The companies came under withering criticism from politicians and customers after Sandy left half a million customers in the dark. Now they are considering replacing wooden poles with ones made of concrete or steel, officials said. They also are assessing tougher cables and connectors -- designed to withstand falling tree limbs -- and placing lines underground in areas of high usage or critical need.
"We're looking to talk to the Public Service Commission
to see if we could underground in some areas," said Con Edison
spokesman Michael Clendenin.
The cost of burying all power lines, however, would be prohibitive, he said.
Clendenin said that "undergrounding" all of New York
City and Westchester's electric cables, not counting telephone and telecommunication lines, would cost $5 million to $6 million per mile, or $40 billion in all. The tab for Westchester County alone: a staggering $15 billion to $20 billion, likely tripling or quadrupling electric rates.
"We know that's not doable," Clendenin said.
Officials at Peal River-based Orange & Rockland Utilities, meanwhile, are scrutinizing repair histories to uncover areas most susceptible to storm damage.
"The way you approach something like this is we're doing an analysis to see where we get high-wind damage," said O&R spokesman Mike Donovan.
O&R is a subsidiary of Con Edison
. It has a sprawling service area, covering all of Rockland and parts of Orange counties as well as sections of New Jersey
. Both O&R and sister utility Con Edison
Co. of New York
-- a subsidiary that serves Westchester County and New York
City -- are in the early stages of rolling out infrastructure hardening programs.
In late January, Con Edison of New York
unveiled plans to spend $1 billion through 2016 to harden facilities. That program was announced as part of Con Ed's application to the Public Service Commission
for a $375 million rate increase, which would raise the monthly bill for a typical Westchester residential customer by 3.3 percent, from $114.41 to $118.
If approved, the increase would take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
A typical small-business customer would see his monthly bill rise from $2,166.59 to $2,225.61 if the rate increase is approved.
The Con Ed rate increase request would have no bearing on customers of O&R, which operates separately.
Westchester County has 7,080 miles of cable underground and 15,500 overhead, but the vast majority of customers -- 317,000 out of 347,800 -- are served by aerial wires. Accounting for the seeming discrepancy: An apartment building in a densely populated area served by underground cables would account for only one customer, Clendenin said.
Some 20-25 percent of O&R's system is underground, Donovan said, but, as in Westchester, burying substantially more cable may not make sense.
"Parts of the system are very rural," he said. "They call this Rockland for a reason. You dig a garden and it's a chore."
Clendenin said that, rather than try to place the entire Westchester power system underground, Con Edison plans to confer with political leaders, ratepayers and essential service providers to decide where to get the best payoff from burying cable.
"We want to have discussion with all the stakeholders," he said. "Do you focus on the densest areas or lines that serve critical facilities like police and hospitals?"
Westchester accounts for 310 square miles out of the parent company's total service area of 610 square miles -- a total that includes all of New York
City's five boroughs -- but accounts for only about 10 percent of the company's customers, who total 3.3 million.
While trying to figure out where undergrounding makes sense, the companies also are planning to make underground equipment submersible so that equipment failures in areas vulnerable to flooding don't spread blackouts to customers on higher ground.
At least part of that $1 billion to be spent on hardening could be defrayed through block grants dispensed through the $50.5 billion Sandy aid package approved by Congress, Clendenin said.
Gerald Norlander, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York, a not-for-profit utility watchdog, said that utilities have an incentive to push infrastructure projects because the PSC allows them a return on invested capital.
"The utility gets paid for investing in capital items," he said. "It's called gold plating. If they can put $100 million in something, they get 10 percent back."
The question is -- according to Norlander -- what infrastructure investments make the most sense?
"A lot of it is cost-benefit
analysis," he said. "Traditional timber poles can last a long time ... Some things may be very smart and some things, you've got to say, 'Not so fast.' "