Samantha Maldonado, The City
It was the morning of Sept. 3. The previous night, a storm barrelled through the New York City region, knocking down trees and powerlines, flooding roads and leaving 300,000 Con Ed customers without electricity. Then, a three-day heat wave descended upon the city, straining the grid and resulting in nearly 200 residents cut off from power.
Except none of this happened.
It was actually May 31, a sunny Wednesday that called only for a light sweater to stand up to the breeze. More than 50 people — employees from Con Ed and staff from city and state agencies — gathered in a conference room high above Union Square to run through a simulation of what is known as a Corporate Emergency Response Center, or CERC.
Like a situation room during an organization-wide crisis mode, a CERC gathers different departments at Con Ed, along with outside stakeholders, whenever a catastrophe jeopardizes power to a significant number of the utility’s 3.6 million customers across the five boroughs and Westchester County.
In real life, a CERC can last for days, until power is restored to customers, any damaged or fallen equipment is dealt with or a heat wave is over. Staffers take 12-hour shifts, and the room is crowded — but never frantic, longtime Con Ed employees say.
But the recent CERC simulation compressed a fictional 12 hours into just under five.
Leading this CERC simulation was Con Ed’s senior vice president of electric operations, Patrick McHugh, wearing a white vest emblazoned with the words “incident commander” on the back and continually peppering his instructions with reminders about safety.
“This is a representation of the whole company, and we’re 14,000 strong. We come into CERC so that everybody can help,” McHugh said.
All Hands On Deck
Other staff members wore white, green or blue vests labeled with leading roles, too. They would be the point people of their domains, the ones to check in with and the ones to report information as people darted from table to table to check in with each other.
Members of different teams spoke into microphones to describe what was happening on the ground. The customer operations team, for instance, reported a fully staffed call center, while the communications team said it was monitoring social media and preparing a press release to go out. The logistics team relayed it had delivered dry ice to residents without power in Astoria, and dispatched over 2,500 contract utility workers to repair overhead lines.
Those borrowed workers represent some of the most critical and operationally complex components of a response, according to McHugh. They fly to New York from states as far as Texas, must be trained, assigned a job, housed and fed. (Likewise, when utility companies elsewhere need help, Con Ed sends its workers there.)
“It’s like moving an army, and the army is [made of] different people every time we do it,” McHugh said.
Soon, obstacles and requests were thrown into the simulation. Eight feeder cables went out of service. A boss asked about staffing levels and costs associated with the restoration process. At nearly 8 p.m. — which was actually 11:30 a.m. — the team got notice that a crew truck hit a black Mercedes. By the end of the day, there would be over 100 of these curveballs.
Con Ed didn’t act alone. It coordinated with the city’s Office of Emergency Management, among other entities.
“Because we don’t act in a funnel, if you want to say, we work with our external partners,” said DeAnne Ostrowski, Con Ed’s director of emergency preparedness, who was serving as the liaison officer during the mock CERC. “They know our process.”
Ostrowski said the company and the city have an “open line” and they do exercises and have quarterly meetings together to stay informed. The city can marshal its resources to assist Con Ed with its emergency response work, such as providing police escorts or towing cars to facilitate the utility crews’ movement to important sites.
Strewn on tables around the room were thick, spiral-bound books with green covers, which serve as Con Ed’s bible for the summer. They contained detailed information about the electric distribution system, critical customers (such as hospitals, transit systems and other places that especially need power) and summer operating procedures.
Maria Rodriguez, a manager at Con Ed who oversaw the production of the guide, told THE CITY while thumping the book, “This is how we live and die… We have everything from, what are the requirements for communicating with the customer, to what are our triggers for mobilizing, what is our minimum staffing, how do we operate the system during a heat wave?”
The Heat is On
In the middle of the emergency simulation, a meteorologist announced yet another calamity: over the next three days, temperatures were likely to soar above 100 degrees. Dealing with such a heat wave, which taxes the electricity grid, is nearly impossible to truly prepare for.
“Nothing simulates running this amount of energy. There’s no test we can do,” McHugh said. “It’s like running a race car, where you can run it at 60 miles an hour on a test track, but you bring it out, and you’re going to run it at 200 miles an hour.”
Preparation comes long before the heat wave, as Con Ed uses the cooler seasons to equip the grid to handle the strain of summer demand. The utility is adding transmission capacity and battery storage, and upgrading substations and other equipment in an effort to increase system resiliency, as well as pushing efficiency programs to decrease demand.
Those projects are paid for by customers in their bills, which the company requested to hike to pay for more such investments.
Still, the effects of heat require decisions that come with tradeoffs. The teams weighed various options to keep the system in working condition and minimize power disruptions to customers, including calling on those in certain areas of the city to conserve energy, cooling off equipment to keep it in service, and reducing voltage to put less strain on the system. How and when to be in touch with elected officials and customers were key parts of the discussion.
Mentions of “what happened in Flatbush” came up countless times throughout the day, referring to lessons learned from a situation in 2019 for how to better deal with risks and explain to the public actions taken that could do more than inconvenience them.
That year, in July, Con Ed shut off the grid in southeast Brooklyn, leaving about 50,000 customers in Canarsie, Mill Basin, Flatbush and other neighborhoods without electricity. Not everyone got power back until late the following day. At the time, Con Ed explained that it was a strategic move meant to prevent worse damage and more widespread outages, but residents and elected officials were irate.
One of the solutions the company has the ability to implement now, that it did not have then, is to cut power to individual residential customers using their smart meters, instead of creating an intentional widespread outage that would include businesses, streetlights and transit, as well as customers on life support.
As part of the exercises, the team ran through a scenario where nearly 200 customers in Brighton Beach would be shut off through their smart meters — down from an anticipated 400. Multiple feeder cables had gone out, and a generator would not arrive until late at night. In reality, Con Ed has not used this approach yet, but emphasized it would include a warning notification ahead of time.
“We’re always going to try to avoid dropping customers,” said Tony Zhu, a senior specialist in advanced metering infrastructure at Con Ed, who was facilitating the exercise. “This is the last resort before we get to the point where we have a much more significant cascading network failures that can take down an entire network.”
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