As power outages go, the Broadway Blackout of 2019 was pretty modest. About 73,000 customers lost power in parts of Manhattan’s Midtown and Upper West Side neighborhoods for several hours just as evening fell on the city’s central entertainment district. Some people were briefly trapped in trains and elevators, but the lights were back on by midnight. In the meantime, cast members of suddenly cancelled Broadway shows took to the sidewalks to sing a few numbers. Patrons at bars continued to drink by the light of their phones. One couple even said their wedding vows by candlelight.
In all, it was a happy contrast to the devastating blackout of 1977, which triggered two days of mayhem (“even the looters were getting mugged,” noted the New York Post). But the temporary inconvenience was not something to take lightly. Blackouts like this are warning signs of underlying rot in our electrical grid. And they may well get worse before they get better. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, stepping in for New York City’s habitually AWOL mayor, Bill de Blasio, called the outage “unacceptable.” Manhattan Institute senior fellow Nicole Gelinas noted that New York wants “to be the center of the universe, but we cannot even keep the lights on for a Saturday evening.” Under the green-energy policies being implemented in New York and elsewhere, such blackouts could become more commonplace in the future.
An investigation is ongoing, but the problem may have started with a transformer fire on 64th Street. Transformers are critical components of the power grid: electricity travels from power plants through high-voltage power lines; transformers then step that power down to the lower voltages our homes and offices run on. Transformers are designed to shut down when they get too hot or overloaded, but every so often, one suddenly explodes instead. And, since transformers typically contain a few gallons of mineral oil (which serves as a coolant), the failed transformer can go up in a fireball.
It happens more often than you might think. Transformer explosions have rocked New York City multiple times in recent years, including a cascading series of failures in 2006 that knocked out power to parts of Queens for more than a week. And transformers are just one of many vulnerable components in our aging electric grid. In 2015, the Department of Energy calculated that 70 percent of the transformers in the U.S. are at least 25 years old. The majority of the grid’s circuit breakers and transmission lines are also well past their prime. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. energy infrastructure an overall grade of D+ in its most recent Infrastructure Report Card. “Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy,” the group noted.
After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, New York’s Con Edison utility launched a four-year, $1 billion Fortifying the Future program of grid upgrades. But the task of fully updating the region’s antiquated electrical system remains daunting. Manhattan alone has more than 80,000 transformers, and about 35 of those fail every year. (Thankfully, most go out with a whimper, not a bang.)
Across the country, the challenge of coping with aging power systems is aggravated by green-energy mandates. In New York, for example, Governor Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision plan dictates that 50 percent of the state’s electricity supply must come from renewable sources by 2030. (Less than a quarter of the electricity produced in the state comes from renewables, and the vast majority of that is hydropower, a source unlike to grow significantly. Wind and solar make up less than 5 percent.) At the same time, Cuomo helped force through a plan to retire the Hudson Valley Indian Point nuclear power plant by 2021. That plant currently supplies 11 percent of the state’s total electricity and a quarter of the power consumed in the New York City region—without any of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with power from coal or natural gas. Replacing all that electricity with wind and solar power is almost certainly unachievable in the time allotted.