On a sweltering summer night last year, Rita Grange, my then 91-year-old grandmother, sat dazed, tired, and anxious along with dozens of other older people on buses parked outside an assisted living center in Brooklyn. On a day when temperatures reached 98 degrees, ConEdison purposely cut power, leaving them without working lights, elevators, or air conditioning.
ConEdison dropped 33,000 Brooklyn and Queens customers from the grid that July 19th to prevent even worse outages.
Across America such intentional shedding of customers during peak demand periods, once extremely rare, has become disturbingly common.
The core problem is a grid that has not kept up with growing demands for electricity even though the electric monopolies and the state utility regulators are supposed to make sure that it does.
The question is, how did our elected officials allow this problem to arise? And what are they doing to put an end to such practices? Shedding customers in heatwaves, or subzero cold, can result in heatstroke or freezing to death.
ConEd, like other corporate electric utilities, is a monopoly granted lucrative privileges by our state governments, including low-risk but high-return profits on its capital. A fundamental principle of electric regulation is that those blessed with these monopoly privileges are supposed to maintain a grid that will serve everyone under any conditions short of war.
Freezing to death in Texas
The Texas grid failed last winter, leaving 69% of Texans without juice for an average of 42 hours. The severe cold and extended lack of electricity caused at least 700 deaths by one estimate. The state's official estimate is 151.
Back in New York City, a push to buy out ConEd and transition from corporate power to public power is being led by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, an elected but non-voting member of the City Council. This makes the city one of a handful of places in the country looking to public power as a solution.
"The reason we did that was to prevent any further outages and also to protect the integrity of the energy system in that area," Con Ed spokesman Sidney Alvarez told the New York Daily News.
Alvarez spoke a truth of the "so what" variety. How did ConEd get into this mess to begin with, especially since it should never happen?
Despite the deliberate outage that sweltering Sunday which my grandmother experienced, more than just the targeted customers lost electricity. At least 19,000 additional ConEd customers lost power.
The exact number of people affected isn't clear because a customer can be a single-family home, a small business, or a multi-story structure with a hundred or more residents.
In Brooklyn's hardest-hit neighborhoods of Mill Basin, Bergen Beach, Canarsie, and Flatlands are home to roughly 22,000 older adults, the 2010 U.S. Census found.
Sunrise Assisted Living Center in Mill Basin is a 24/7 elderly care facility for higher-functioning seniors. It includes a memory care section for residents suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. At any given time, it houses up to 115 residents, including my wheelchair-bound, partially blind grandmother.
That summer night, the power went out at Sunrise just after the residents finished dinner in the first-floor café at around 6 p.m. Since many residents are in wheelchairs or need walkers, this meant that they were all stuck on the first floor, away from their bedrooms.
To keep the residents from overheating, the city brought in a few air-conditioned MTA buses for them to stay in until the facility found a generator to hook up to. Residents sat in hard, plastic seats and wheelchairs, with the florescent lighting keeping them awake late in the night.
Sunrise also used its own small bus, meant for day trips to stores and pharmacies, for the same purpose.
That's how I ended up sitting on the minibus next to my sundowning grandmother and my frustrated mother until 3 a.m. when the temporary generator kicked in, and the lights clicked on. By the next afternoon, power had been restored to many of the affected ConEd customers.
While this was the most memorable blackout I've experienced living in Mill Basin, it's not the only one — just this past month there was another brief blackout in the area.
Blackouts during Brooklyn summers are nothing new, nor are they surprising. Residents of the borough and the city as a whole have come to expect them each year. These expectations are consistently met.
Power outages are an issue across the country, especially in summer when demand peaks — think central air, window air conditioners, and fans, all in addition to the regular use of lights, elevators, escalators, televisions, and computers.
Heat lightning and summer storms can also damage power lines and prevent the electricity from reaching customers. But the core problem is a grid that has not kept up with growing demands for electricity even though the electric monopolies and the state utility regulators are supposed to make sure that it does. This includes maintaining the grid.
While it's understandable that power grids can become overwhelmed or damaged, there has to be a solution for people who experienced any of the 1.33 billion hours of power outages in the United States last year. That was 73% higher than a year earlier, but also slightly less than in 2018.
President Joe Biden's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act include plans to fix power lines and grids around the country to reduce the number of power outages nationally. It passed the Senate and is now back in the House for final votes.
In Section 40101, "Preventing Outages and Enhancing the Resilience of the Electric Grid" of the act, Congress allocates $5 billion for Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to distribute among "eligible entities" — electric grid operators, electricity storage operators, electricity generators, and transmission owners or operators, among others.
The money is to reduce any event in which "operations of the electric grid are disrupted, preventively shut off, or cannot operate safely."
To do this, Granholm would distribute the money to utilities and grid operators, but also among states and Native American tribes, which will further distribute the funding to electric entities based on certain requirements.
The section's goal is to fund already-underway projects to fix power grids before disruptive events occur, to increase the eligible entities' ability "to reduce the likelihood and consequences of disruptive events," and to prevent the entities' power lines from causing wildfires like those ravaging California.
If successful, the program could lead to fewer power outages. Since the program lasts from 2022 until 2026, though, it's going to take some time before the program, and the act as a whole, can be deemed successful or not.
Maybe by 2026, Sunrise Assisted Living's elderly residents won't have to grapple yearly with deadly heat, dark rooms, and useless elevators. That will depend on whether Congress acts to help people like my grandmother or continues its malign neglect.