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Testimony of Con Edison for the City Council Housing & Buildings and Resiliency & Waterfronts Committees Oversight Hearing

re: State of Housing Resiliency along the Waterfront

  • Con Edison is committed to climate action and to building the grid of the future to withstand a changing climate and more extreme weather.
  • The company is already undergrounding vulnerable power lines and planning to expand these investments in a major way with support from stakeholders.

Introduction

Good morning. Thank you, Chairmen, and members of the Committees for the opportunity to provide comments today. My name is Shakira Wilson and I am a Vice President for Electric Operations for Con Edison. I am joined by my colleague, Kyle Kimball, Vice President of Government, Regional, and Community Affairs.

We are here today before this committee to share some of our experiences and respectfully offer some considerations to be taken when approaching the issue of undergrounding power lines in New York City.

Con Edison’s expanded Clean Energy Commitment sets forth our vision to facilitate a net zero economy by 2050. Our commitment builds upon our past successes as a climate leader and boldly expands on that work by providing actionable metrics and targets. It is supported by five pillars – including one to build a resilient 22nd century electric grid that delivers 100% clean energy by 2040. As electrifying buildings and transportation make the grid even more integral to reaching our society’s climate goals, the company will continue its resiliency programs which will include significant investment in undergrounding.

Resiliency Investments

Con Edison invests more than $3B annually in its energy delivery systems to maintain its industry-leading reliability. Strategic undergrounding is one important tool in the suite of resiliency investments we are making to enhance our ability to recover from major storms and restore customers. Most of our electric system is underground--83% in New York City. Staten Island is 66% overhead, it is 22% in Queens, 20% in the Bronx, and 11% in Brooklyn.

Within a few years and with yours and the public’s support we would like to have undergrounding projects throughout the City. We currently have a few undergrounding projects in various phases of implementation, including one in Middle Village, Queens, that has already started construction. We are also assessing a potential location in Staten Island. The goal of these projects is to assess the feasibility and costs of undergrounding portions of our overhead electric circuits and equipment that are especially prone to damage during major storms. We will take lessons learned, including the experience of our participating customers into consideration as we seek to expand our strategic undergrounding efforts into future capital plans. These plans are part of resiliency investments of more than $2 billion over the next 10 years, that build on our Climate Change Implementation Plan released in early 2020.

Considerations for Undergrounding The main benefits to undergrounding overhead power lines is to reduce the quantity of customer outages from damaged poles, equipment and wires due to storms. Undergrounding can also benefit the entire system by minimizing the overall number of storm repairs thus allowing for improved crew utilization and dispatch. In addition, some members of the public may value aesthetic improvements to avoiding overhead poles and wires if all utilities underground their infrastructure. While there are clear benefits to undergrounding there are some challenges to be addressed. The largest being the costs that will arise from this work. All customers will bear the bill impact of the required incremental capital investment as well as the cost associated with the conversion of their own service connection from overhead to underground under present regulations. Underground cable is susceptible to flooding/salt intrusion and heat and more difficult to repair/maintain than overhead lines. Other considerations are the construction impact and coordination with street interferences and other utilities.

There are some things that can make undergrounding successful, and similar to the clean energy transition, we know we cannot do it alone and need support from a wide array of stakeholders.

  1. Support for investments
    Our most substantial challenge and our largest request of the Council and other stakeholders is to support our efforts to invest in resiliency. Undergrounding costs can be substantial but similar to mitigating climate change, the cost of inaction is significant. We recognize the future will entail competing priorities of how we pay for a changing climate and the transition to a more resilient overhead system. All of these investments will add to the customer bill impact along with a growing tax burden paid by customers.

  2. Buy-in from customers
    The success of our future undergrounding plans relies on customers willing to participate in the program. In some cases, if one or more customers does not want to participate along a line or spur, it can derail the project for everyone. There’s also the issue of the cost to the customer equipment which currently cannot be recovered by socializing across all of our customer base.

  3. Coordination with government and other utilities
    And finally, general support from the City and other government leaders, including yourselves is key to success. Benchmarking other utility programs shows that buy-in from local government officials can help move these complex projects forward. Early engagement of important stakeholders is key. An enhanced and dedicated partnership with the municipality, in this case the City of New York, would be extremely beneficial to the expansion of these projects throughout the City. Also, other utility interferences and participation by the telecoms are important. There is City infrastructure including 5G on overhead poles that also needs to be considered. We cannot compel any telecommunications company in which we may share poles, to underground their infrastructure.

We look forward to continuing to work with the Council and other stakeholders to make our City more resilient. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.

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