Statement By Attorney General Spitzer Regarding The Loss Of Electricity Service In Queens Aand Westchester Counties

In March 2000, my office issued a detailed report examining the causes of the blackout in the Washington Heights-Inwood neighborhoods in the summer of 1999 -- including Con Ed's failure to address the effects of heat on its underground feeder cables, its inability to identify components at risk of failure, and its failure to recognize the scope of the problem. That report also listed 13 specific actions that Con Ed and the state's Public Service Commission should take to prevent another similar blackout.

Six years later, an estimated 100,000 residents in Queens were plunged into darkness for nearly identical reasons - inadequately maintained feeder cables that were vulnerable to heat and power overloads, an inability to identify equipment that was likely to fail, a failure to comprehend the magnitude of the problem, inadequate communication with the public, and a failure to restore power promptly.

It is clear that Con Ed did not heed the warnings from the earlier blackout, and that the PSC's oversight of the utility has been wholly inadequate.

Once power is restored to residents, the PSC should compel Con Ed to take the actions recommended in our 2000 report, including:

  • Develop a test for detecting equipment vulnerable to heat stress, overload or other sudden failure;
  • Establish a protocol for power grid management that includes mandatory reporting to local and state officials;
  • Improve crisis communications with customers, government and the public, including more accurate reporting of customer power loss and the time needed to bring customers back on line; and
  • Increase the amount the company pays customers for food and perishables ruined by lack of refrigeration, and compensate customers for appliances damaged by power outages.

It is indeed regrettable that such actions were not undertaken or were not done so inadequately. It is imperative that the steps are implemented as soon as possible to avoid problems in the future.

Excerpts from Spitzer's 2000 report follow:

"We conclude that Con Edison entered the 1999 summer cooling season, the time of year when demand on the system is highest and the effects of heat on the system are most pronounced, with a distribution system containing numerous defective or inadequate components. When the weather got very hot in early July, the components that were susceptible to failure were unable to withstand the high temperatures to which they were subjected by the combination of the hot weather itself and the heat generated by the large volume of electric current demanded by customers. As a result, a large number of customers lost their electric power."

"[O]ur inquiry leads us to conclude that the weaknesses in the distribution system in Washington Heights-Inwood are not unique to that load area, but appear to be endemic to much of Con Edison's whole distribution system."

"In designing its distribution system, Con Edison did not take sufficient account of or seek to minimize the effects of heat on underground components of the system, and did not adequately ensure that equipment was not placed too close together and was not otherwise exposed to excessive heat."

"In maintaining its distribution system, Con Edison did not take into account the fact that . . . there were a greater number of components with weakened ability to withstand heat in the system, and Con Edison did not take adequate steps to identify, repair and replace such components."

"In maintaining its distribution system, Con Edison did not have adequate means to identify components that would be susceptible to failing when heated to the levels their immediate environment would reach during a heat wave."

"In maintaining its distribution system, Con Edison did not undertake an effort to develop a means to identify components most likely to fail and to replace such components."

"Con Edison has not sufficiently addressed the effect on its distribution system of high temperatures in equipment carrying high electricity loads in combination with the effect on equipment of sustained high ambient temperatures. These conditions can be expected to exist during the summer in Con Edison's service territory."

"The fact that design and maintenance problems endemic to Con Edison's distribution system led to a total blackout of this network only heightens the urgency for Con Edison to address these problems in Washington Heights-Inwood and elsewhere in its service territory."

"We conclude that Con Edison should do more to ensure that adequate and timely information is provided to the affected public in the event of an imminent power emergency such as that experienced in early July 1999."

"We conclude that the tariff pursuant to which Con Edison compensates customers for losses suffered during outages is out of date and thus provides inadequate reimbursement limits."

"Con Edison should redesign its distribution system to ensure that underground components are not overcrowded into limited space, creating greater susceptibility to heat; to ensure that components are not otherwise subject to excessive heat; and to ensure that all portions of its system can carry the load to which they will be subject during a summer heat wave."

"Con Edison should develop a test to identify distribution equipment with impaired heat resistance. If Con Edison determines that a practical test is not readily achievable in the near future, it should state so publicly, and propose an alternative means to ensure that such defective equipment is identified and removed from its distribution system."

"Con Edison should ensure that equipment repairs are carried out as quickly as possible whenever there is any indication that a network or any appreciable number of customers are at risk of losing service."

"Con Edison should improve its policies and procedures for alerting and informing its customers, government, institutions and the public during actual outages and when there is a serious risk of an outage."

"Con Edison should amend the tariff it files with the New York State Public Service Commission to increase the amount of compensation a customer can receive for losses due to a power outage, expand the definition of 'losses' for which compensation can be provided, and improve its policies and practices for submission of claims by customers who suffer losses attributable to a power outage."

"The New York State Public Service Commission should review its distribution service quality standards for Con Edison to determine whether amending those standards would improve the reliability of Con Edison's electric service."

"In the 21st century, the millions of residents of New York City and Westchester County depend upon electricity to light our streets; to power our homes, businesses, and hospitals; and to provide relief from oppressively hot weather. While some outages cannot be avoided, Con Edison must not run the risk of another major outage such as occurred last July. To do so is unacceptable. We urge Con Edison to heed the warning of the summer of 1999, and to ensure that this summer, everywhere in its service territory, the power stays on."

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