Tough decision, loss of power

Amy Scott Jul 25, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Maybe the only thing more frustrating than a prolonged blackout is not know why it happened. During a heat wave. When the air conditioning dies. And when it turns out maybe the lights could have come back on earlier. Some parts of Queens, N.Y., have been without electricity for nine days now. The power company says it doesn’t know why it happened. Exactly. Marketplace’s Amy Scott has more.

AMY SCOTT: When the power started failing last week, officials at Consolidated Edison had two options. They could shut off service to a large section of Queens. Or they could keep the lights on and hope the system could handle the load.

The New York Times revealed today that officials at ConEd chose the latter approach. They bet on the system holding up. It didn’t.

The resulting blackout still affected fewer people than a deliberate shutdown might have. But it’s probably lasted much longer. Energy consultant Richard Lauckhart says it’s a choice utilities face all the time.

RICHARD LAUCKHART: It is a stressful decision. You don’t like to curtail customers if at all possible. But it’s just the nature of the business.

The decision can have huge consequences. Branko Terzic is a former federal energy regulator. He says Ohio power company First Energy could have halted a chain of blackouts three years ago before it spread throughout the Northeast.

BRANKO TERZIC: Had they realized what was occurring, they could have disconnected the load in metropolitan Cleveland, and then it would not have cascaded through the rest of the system.

You can imagine the backlash in Cleveland had that happened. Seven years ago ConEd cut off the power to two Manhattan neighborhoods to avoid more widespread damage. The company was then accused of deliberately sacrificing poor neighborhoods to protect its wealthier customers.

New York’s attorney general says if ConEd had made the system upgrades his office recommended back then, the company wouldn’t have found itself in this pickle.

In New York, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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