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Testimony of Shakira Wilson, Con Edison Vice President, Electric Operations Bronx/Westchester

Westchester County Board of Legislators Hearing on Tropical Storm Isaias

Introduction

Good morning to all the honorable members of the Westchester County Board of Legislators. My name is Shakira Wilson and I am the Vice-President of Westchester and Bronx Electric Operations at Con Edison.   

I am joined today by my colleagues Jane Solnick, Director of Westchester Regional and Community Affairs, Matthew Sniffen, Vice-President of Emergency Preparedness, Kyle Kimball, Vice-President of Government, Regional, and Community Affairs, and Jason Litwak, Con Edison’s Director of Government Affairs. 

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.

Pre-Storm Preparation

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 after Riley and Quinn, we began investing $25 million annually to fortify Westchester’s overhead electric-delivery system. We estimate that these efforts resulted in 20 percent fewer outages during Isaias than we otherwise would have expected.

We routinely remove hazardous trees throughout Westchester. Last year alone we spent about $8.1 million or 56% of our over $14 million budget for that year on tree trimming in Westchester.

We are nearly complete with installing smart meters throughout Westchester County. Smart meters will help to improve the accuracy and timeliness of outage and restoration information.

In addition to all these system-wide resiliency preparations, we also make necessary preparations for specific weather events, such as Isaias.

When forecasts indicated 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.

And prior to the storm we also held calls with municipal and elected officials throughout the County.

Weather Event

We monitored Isaias as it formed and made its way up the eastern seaboard towards our service area.

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 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, and wind gusts between 50 and 60 miles per hour to hit Westchester.

What Happened: Post-Storm Damage

These extremely strong winds caused widespread destruction.

All told, nearly 330,000 Con Edison customers lost power, including just over 125,000 in Westchester.

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 Westchester. In the County the storm damaged 267 poles, blocked more than 600 roads, and downed over 1,00 wires.  

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 - over 64% of all Con Edison jobs were in Westchester (3,247 out of 5,089) - the pace of restoration for this storm was significantly faster than previous major storms.

47 percent of Westchester customers were restored by the end of the second day of restoration, 60 percent by the end of day three, and 85 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 workers on site through the Con Edison service territory on the day of the storm. Of which 421 were in Westchester. 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. By 8/10 there were 1,671 workers in Westchester.

Rebuilding and Restoration Effort: Continuous Improvement

Many of the corrective actions that we implemented following Riley and Quinn in 2018 were helpful for this storm response.

For example, we worked to improve our coordination with municipalities, working directly with them to prioritize road closures, and deploying liaisons to every municipality that requested one.

We also incorporated your suggestions and started using right of first refusal contracts for some mutual aid contractors, which enabled us to have additional workers on site before Isaias hit.

In addition, 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 more resilient, but we know this is not enough.

 

Our customers have made it clear that they have no patience when they are out of power for multiple days and we 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 125 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 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 to underground the entire Con Edison system with nearly $28 billion allocated to Westchester. 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.  

  

So yes, restoring power very quickly can be done, but as you see 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.

 

Conclusion

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 typically the most reliable electric system in the country.

I am extremely proud of my colleagues 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.

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