Op-ed by Rob DiFrancesco
For 45 million people in eight Northeastern states and parts of Canada, August 14, 2003 proved just how crucial it is to have reliable electric power. On that day, a massive blackout shut off the electricity that is crucial not only to our lives and livelihoods, but also to our health and safety.
Most people still remember where they were when it happened.
The blackout affected 15 million New Yorkers—many of whom went for over 24 hours without being able to run the air conditioning, turn on the lights, charge electronic devices, or ride in elevators.
The blackout was far more than an inconvenience: total economic losses tallied $6 billion. Worst of all, nearly 100 people in New York City died from accidents, stress-triggered heart attacks, and asthma from increased pollution according to a 2012 Johns Hopkins University study of the blackout’s health effects.
This kind of loss is especially hard, and, sadly, it could happen again if we don’t act now to stop another major blackout. Over the years since the 2003 blackout, New York’s electricity providers have worked hard to keep the power flowing, but we face several significant challenges.
First, we need enough power generation to keep pace with our growing population and with the increasing use of electrical devices in just about every aspect of our lives. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, total electricity demand is expected to increase by more than 30% by 2035.
New York should act now to expedite approvals for new power plants, make environmental restrictions clear and reasonable, and help us to keep operating the clean plants we have. This includes Indian Point, which supplies up to 30% of the region’s electricity.
Generating more power within New York State has another advantage: right now we rely heavily on electricity imported from Canada, Connecticut, New Jersey, and elsewhere. When demand is high, we have to compete with all these other places for power. Increasing our state’s own capacity would make us more energy-secure, strengthen our economy, and create jobs—and might even enable New York to be a net power exporter.
We also need to reinforce, retool, and add to our aging and severely stressed transmission grid, about 80% of which is at least 35 years old. Bitter experience during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene proved how vulnerable our grid is to extreme weather.
It is also at risk from cyber attacks, about which experts are increasingly concerned. Expanded federal funding is needed to ensure that we can defend the grid against these emerging threats. In addition, we’d benefit from new smart grid technology to use power more efficiently.
It will take at least $25 billion to modernize and upgrade our grid. This is a big cost, and it needs to be the responsibility of private developers, without subsidies, because New Yorkers are already paying a high price for electricity. Our electric bills cover generation, transmission, and taxes. The taxes make up about 25% of the bills, which is too much. Ratepayers need a break.
In addition, since it will require at least 10 years to improve and expand the transmission grid, we need all the state authorities involved to provide the necessary approvals and permits as quickly as possible. There’s no time to waste.
New Yorkers’ lives, livelihoods, health, and safety are too important to risk by delaying urgently needed investment in our electricity generation and transmission. By keeping the clean sources of power we have; adding new plants; and improving, expanding, and protecting our grid, we will, quite literally, have a brighter future.
Rob DiFrancesco is the director of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance (New York AREA), a diverse organization of more than 150 business, labor, and community groups. Entergy, the owner of Indian Point, is a member. Founded in 2003, New York AREA’s mission is to ensure that New York has an ample and reliable electricity supply, and economic prosperity for years to come. For more information visit www.area-alliance.org