Con Edison's president blamed a shifting weather forecast for the widespread power outages in NYC in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias this summer, but insisted the power utility was not caught off guard by the storm.
Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out power for 205,000 NYC customers in early August—the highest number since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, company officials said. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds downed trees and power lines, leaving live wires hanging and residents without power during a heat wave and the COVID-19 pandemic.
But during a four-hour oversight hearing with councilmembers on Monday, the power company's president appeared to contradict himself on whether the utility was prepared for Isaias's onslaught.
"[W]e took many steps to prepare, including initiating storm preparations, requesting mutual aid, and retaining additional contractor crews to be on the ground, ready to respond as soon as the storm had passed," Con Edison President Tim Cawley told city councilmembers. But that was the weekend prior, when winds were expected to be 30 to 35 miles-per-hour.
By Tuesday morning, the storm headed 30 miles west towards Pennsylvania, sending "the storm's strongest wind gusts—60 to 70 miles-per-hour—to hit the NYC area," Cawley said.
Once the storm passed, a total of 330,000 customers lost power across NYC and Westchester. Entire trees, including healthy ones, fell, taking down wires and utility poles with them. "This damage was so severe that we were required to entirely rebuild sections of our systems, rather than simply repair them," Cawley said.
"We prepared for the forecast with cushion and the weather delivered something much more destructive," Cawley said.
But when Councilmember Justin Brannan, chair of the resiliency and waterfronts committee, asked point-blank: "Do you feel that Con Ed was caught off guard by Isaias?"
Cawley replied: "I don't."
"In fact, going into the weekend—and we reflect on this a lot Chair Brannan—we had been focused on storm response and we are particularly appreciative of the fact that COVID is a new world for people," Cawley said.
Cawley said the company beefed up crews 60 percent higher than what they were during Sandy, and the damage would have been 20 percent worse if it weren't for investments to fortify existing systems after the 2012 storm.
During Isaias, Queens was particularly hard-hit.
Customers there saw outages for more than a week, facing unmet promises from Con Ed day-after-day in the wake of the storm and as a heat wave descended upon the city—both of which will intensify in coming years due to climate change caused by carbon emissions.
"These are more than just numbers on a page or statistics on a screen," Southeast Queens Councilmember Daneek Miller said. "These are seniors who have been isolated in their homes for nearly six months due to COVID ... households that have seen their finances stretched beyond their limits ... [and] forced to dump hundreds of dollars of food and medication into the garbage."
"There is 67 customers in Manhattan who lost power while the rest of us in the Ozarks—the outer boroughs—are in the dark," Brannan quipped.
The storm was a "tale of two boroughs," said Councilmember Mark Gjonaj, of the Bronx, where some 6,900 customers didn't have power five days after the storm.
Councilmembers questioned why the company hasn't yet invested in placing all the power lines underground—like the lines are in all of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.
The cost of placing powerlines underground is estimated at $50 billion. The storm damage from Isaias has cost the company $130 million.
Brannan said the company—which Cawley said has had rising dividends for its shareholders for nearly 50 years—should lower those dividends to front the cost.
"There's a cognitive dissonance there that is very troubling," Brannan said during the hearing. "It just sounds crazy to me that we just keep doing the same thing over and over again and somehow eventually, 5, 10 years from now if we keep doing this, it's going to add up to the cost of burying the damn lines at some point."
Cawley said shareholders have invested $25 billion into the company—and if they lower their share, they would no longer invest.
"If we forewent some of the dividend, our shareholders would go elsewhere, and ultimately, financing the $3 billion+ a year would go up. It becomes a bad circle," he said.
Con Edison officials emphasized the sheer coordination with Verizon, Spectrum, National Grid, and the city that would be required and that underground systems are more vulnerable to heat waves. Some homeowners would have to pay $15,000 to $20,000 to adjust their power systems.
"This is not us saying that we are not going to bury the power lines because it's too expensive," said Kyle Kimball, VP of government affairs at Con Ed. "Most of those communities who studied it after Sandy decided themselves, it was too expensive."
Added Cawley, "It's hard to justify the economics straight up, but there's an incredible inconvenience and, frankly, hardship for our customers." As storms becomes more severe, Cawley says another form of infrastructure improvement–sectionalizing switches to mitigate how far outages spread—is the "biggest bang for the buck."
Climate crisis groups, and recently Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, have called for a public takeover of the company, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly threatened to take away the utility company's license with the state. Con Ed could face a $500,000 fine if a state investigation determines it bungled the response to Isaias, amounting to a gentle slap on the wrist considering the company's $12 billion annual revenues and $48 billion in assets.