Testimony of Con Edison President Tim Cawley
New York City Council Joint Oversight Hearing: Tree Removals and the Restoration of Power in the Aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias
Good morning Chairpersons and to all the honorable members of the New York City Council. My name is Tim Cawley and I am the President of Con Edison Company of New York.
I am joined today by my colleagues Robert Schimmenti, Senior Vice President of Electric Operations, Kyle Kimball, Vice President of Government, Regional & Community Affairs, Matt Sniffen, Vice President of Emergency Preparedness, and Patrick Burke, Vice President of Brooklyn/Queens Electric Operations.
We appear before you today to describe and discuss Con Edison’s preparations and response to Tropical Storm Isaias, a historically destructive storm which struck on August 4 and whose impact was felt from the Carolinas to Vermont. As I will explain, we were prepared for the forecasted storm and as the storm’s impact greatly exceeded forecasts, we responded aggressively in our restoration efforts. I
want to start by acknowledging that all of us at Con Edison are keenly aware of how disruptive it is to be without power for a few hours – let alone for multiple days. The purpose of our existence as a Company is to provide energy to our customers safely, reliably, and sustainably, and when events like this occur, we see firsthand what a hardship it is for our customers, especially now, as people may be working from home, taking online classes and facing employment and financial struggles.
Next Steps, Continuous Improvement
We have already heard from our customers, municipal partners, and elected officials, including many of you about areas where we can better serve our customers and our communities. All these issues deserve thoughtful diagnosis and remediation. We have a deep-seeded culture of continuous improvement and are committed to addressing these issues.
At Con Edison we prepare for all kinds of weather events year-round. Our in-house meteorologists constantly track weather trends and model potential impacts on our system. We invest over $1 billion annually, including in storm hardening measures, in our electric system and estimate that these efforts resulted in 20 percent fewer outages during Isaias than we otherwise would have expected.
Con Edison spends about $14 million annually on a robust tree trimming program. And we are more than halfway through installing smart meters throughout the Con Edison service territories. Once this project is complete, smart meters will help to improve the accuracy and timeliness of outage and restoration information.
We also leverage our productive and robust relationship with the City of New York by regularly coordinating with them through information sharing and drills.
In addition to all these system-wide “Blue Sky” resiliency preparations, we also make necessary preparations for specific weather events, such as Isaias.
As forecasts became clearer that Isaias would impact our region, we took many steps to prepare, including initiating internal storm preparations, requesting mutual aid, and retaining additional contractor crews to be on the ground, ready to respond as soon as the storm passed.
Prior to the storm we also held calls with municipal and elected officials throughout our service territories.
We monitored Isaias as it formed and made its way towards our area up the eastern seaboard.
On Monday, August 3, based on information from the National Hurricane Center, we expected Isaias to pass just west of the New York City area.
Early on Tuesday, August 4, the forecasted path was roughly the same, with slightly stronger winds.
Just four hours before the storm hit the New York City region, it suddenly and without warning tracked 30 miles to the west towards Pennsylvania. None of the weather models predicted this change in the storm’s track.
This change caused the storm’s strongest wind gusts – 60 to 70 miles per hour – to hit the New York City area.
What Happened: Post-Storm Damage
These extremely strong winds caused widespread destruction.
All told, nearly 330,000 Con Edison customers lost power including about 205,000 in New York City. In Con Edison’s long history, only Superstorm Sandy caused more outages.
Entire trees collapsed onto our poles, wires and other core infrastructure. This damage was so severe that we were required to entirely rebuild sections of our system rather than just repair them.
Isaias brought down thousands of trees across New York City and our service territory. Our trouble tickets show that over 1,450 trees damaged our energy delivery infrastructure, including damage to more than 450 poles throughout the service territory. Our understanding from the Parks Department is they received a huge number of service requests during and after the storm, and the storm inflicted the 3rd highest amount of tree damage (reflected by number of work orders) in recent memory.
Isaias also caused incredible damage to surrounding areas as well. Roughly 3 million customers were impacted from the Carolinas to New England.
Rebuilding and Restoration Effort Begins
As with any storm we face, restoration work began as soon as the storm passed, and it was safe to do so.
While the damage was extensive, the pace of restoration for this storm was significantly faster than previous major storms.
For our New York City customers whose service was interrupted, 68 percent were restored by the end of the second day of restoration, 87 percent by the end of day three, and 98 percent by the end of day five.
Rebuilding and Restoration: Mutual Aid
One of the reasons we were able to make such quick progress was the presence of mutual aid.
We began requesting and securing additional crews four days before Isaias hit. After the storm passed and the extent of the damage became clear, we widened our search and began bringing in crews from all over the country.
Thanks to these efforts, we had a total of 784 overhead and tree workers on site the day of the storm on August 4th. As the event progressed, we continued to add resources to the response. Overall, during this restoration effort we applied 1.6 times as many overhead resources than we applied during the same period to Superstorm Sandy.
Rebuilding and Restoration Effort: Continuous Improvement
Many of the corrective actions that we implemented following winter storms in 2018 were helpful for this storm response.
We started using right of first refusal contracts for some mutual aid contractors, which enabled us to have additional workers on site before Isaias hit.
And, for the first time, we flew in 100 mutual aid workers, and provided them with trucks when they arrived, to get them on site and restoring power faster.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, Con Edison was prepared for the forecasted storm and as the storm’s impact greatly exceeded forecasts, we responded aggressively in our restoration efforts.
We have implemented the recommendations from past storms and strengthened our system over the years to make it smarter and more resilient, but we know this is not enough.
Our customers have made it clear that they have no patience for incremental changes – especially when they are out of power for multiple days. And I, and we, all understand their frustration.
Ultimately, we are accountable to our customers, and under these type of extreme storm conditions, it is clear that we are not meeting our customers’ expectations.
It is also clear that destructive storms like these have grown stronger and more frequent as the realities of climate change take hold.
Con Edison’s expertise is in reliably transmitting and distributing electricity – we were among the first to do it nearly 200 years ago, and today we are one of the most reliable electric utilities in the country.
We know what it would take to be able to restore 100% of customers very quickly after a storm like Isaias.
I hope we can start that conversation today.
There are three primary ways that we can reduce major outages and restore more quickly:
First, all the trees that are near power lines could be removed, but I know none of us want to do that.
Second, we could underground the entire system. We have studied this in the past, and are open to continuing to explore the idea, but we all need to be honest about what undergrounding entails.
Previous studies have shown it would cost around $50 billion. This does not include how much customers would have to pay directly – roughly $15-$20 thousand each – to install new equipment on their homes and businesses to connect the new underground lines.
The third option is having more crews on standby to aid in storm restoration; however, the cost of retaining the necessary thousands of additional workers would be incredibly high.
Restoring power very quickly can be done, but it comes at a very high cost. It can only be done if there is first a frank conversation among all stakeholders about what achieving this level of resiliency would require. It is a conversation where your voices – the voices of policymakers and community leaders at all levels – are essential.
Our customers depend on Con Edison to provide an essential service, and they understandably expect this service to be as reliable as possible. We understand this and work hard every day to meet that expectation.
But balancing expectations with costs for our customers is also critically important and must be a central part of the conversations going forward.
As always, we are open to your ideas and welcome your feedback and look forward to your partnership in an open, constructive, and productive dialogue as we work together in finding effective and achievable solutions.
2020 has been a tough year for everyone, and our employees are no different. They showed up every day during the worst days of the pandemic and every day during this long, hot summer. They work tirelessly to serve our customers safely and maintain what is widely regarded as the most reliable electric system in the country.
I am extremely proud of them and the work they have done and continue to do.
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you all today, and we look forward to your questions.