Craig Ivey

New York City is where Thomas A. Edison, Con Edison’s founder and namesake, established the world’s first central power plant to light people’s homes and shops.

Some 130 years later, Con Edison is still using its ability to innovate, utilizing the latest technologies to achieve another goal: protecting New Yorkers from the impacts to climate change.

Climate change threatens our environment, our health, our safety, and our economy. Temperatures and sea levels are rising. In the last several years, Con Edison customers have had to withstand tropical systems, nor’easters, tornados, fierce rain and windstorms, and major heat waves.

Consider that our company never experienced a storm that caused 200,000 customer outages until Hurricane Irene struck in 2011. Just a year later, Superstorm Sandy rampaged through our area and caused more than 1 million customer outages. The four largest storm-related outages in our long history have all occurred since 2010.

Con Edison’s commitment to understanding climate change and reducing our impact on the environment is long-standing. We are committed to shrinking our carbon footprint and have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions 43% since 2005.

As we make our operations cleaner and greener, we are also strengthening our systems against future climate change. Con Edison is in the second year of a four-year US$1 billion plan to fortify our energy-delivery systems. Such a complex and ambitious plan requires all the talents and dedication of our 14,000 men and women.

The improvements include hundreds of remote “smart” switches to isolate damaged equipment to help reduce
the number of homes that lose power when a tree knocks down a power cable and stronger, ­tree-branch resistant aerial cable.

We are installing utility poles in storm-prone areas that are much stronger and able to withstand wind gusts up to 110 mi/h. We are deploying thousands of overhead isolation devices to reduce customer outages and facilitate faster restoration.

Our plan also includes measures to protect customers who rely on our underground electrical-delivery system. We are redesigning two underground electrical networks in lower Manhattan and one serving coastal communities in Brooklyn. The new smart grid designs will allow us to preemptively de-energize customers in flood-prone areas and restore power faster when floodwaters recede, while keeping customers in the surrounding areas in service.

We have built over 1 mi of concrete flood barriers around critical equipment and higher perimeter walls and flood gates around substations. We are installing additional submersible equipment in flood-prone areas of our system.

Con Edison has taken another step to protect against rising sea levels by designing for the long term and incorporating climate change into those designs. That standard uses the FEMA 100-year floodplain and adds 3 ft of “freeboard” to account for future rises in the sea level. This design standard will be examined at least every five years or as real-time conditions or advancements in climate science provide new information.

We expect our system protections to evolve over many years. We have begun a climate vulnerability study to determine the types and severity of extreme weather events most likely to strike New York. We will use that information to plan the additional upgrades we will need to protect our critical equipment and customers.

Significant changes in temperature and humidity over time could change the way our equipment performs. We would have to respond by designing our networks to remain reliable during such intense heat
and humidity.

Coastal storms can carry punishing combinations of strong winds; flooding; and dense, wet snow. We must understand the strength, track, and frequency of future coastal storms and design a resilient utility system.

We have superb engineers at Con Edison who are capable of designing improvements to protect our systems against strong overhead storms, massive flooding, and temperatures of 100°. But we do not have the luxury of designing the perfect system. This super system would cost tens of billions of dollars, subjecting our ratepayers to unaffordable bill increases.

We must balance our customers’ need for resilient energy systems with cost. That requires wise risk-based decisions about which improvements we make.

Distributed customer-sited projects such as solar panels and combined heat and power systems have the potential to help our system remain reliable on summer’s hottest days. The ability to isolate sections of our electric system, such as with microgrids, can protect customers from coastal storm flooding and tree damage like our area experienced during Sandy.

Electrical vehicles can also help against climate change by reducing emissions. Additionally, less reliance on gasoline when supplies are short, such as in the days following Superstorm Sandy, supports an improved response effort when thousands of repair vehicles are engaged in 24/7 operations support.

The utility of the future will take advantage of the best technologies to keep service reliable and control costs. Opportunities such as leveraging distributed resources, deploying monitoring and control systems, and installing microgrids and reconfigurable systems are already under review. The resilience our customers need will require a highly interactive grid that is able to accommodate two-way flows of electricity.

Utilities have always found ways to make the delivery of energy safe, reliable, and efficient. But now our industry faces a new challenge, which is protecting our customers against climate change.

Con Edison plans to be a leader, just as we were when Thomas Edison installed dynamos at the Pearl Street generating station in Lower Manhattan.