Con Ed President Grilled For Hours About ‘National Embarrassment’ Of NYC Blackouts
Fall is in the air, but New York City hasn’t forgotten about the multiple blackouts that left thousands of New Yorkers without power in the midst of a summer heat wave. The New York State Legislature isn’t inclined to let Con Edison forget about those flubs either, judging by a marathon public hearing on the electric utility’s reliability that took place on Tuesday in Manhattan.
For more than two hours, Con Ed president Tim Cawley was grilled by angry New York State lawmakers demanding to know why the blackouts happened, what his company is doing to prevent such outages in the future—and whether reliable service is compatible with Con Ed’s profit model as a private—versus public—business.
This summer alone there was the major power outage on the West Side of Manhattan, which left tens of thousands of residents without power for hours on July 13 (which occurred on the 42nd anniversary of the 1977 blackout). Then came a smaller outage several days later that affected New Yorkers in four different boroughs. And, perhaps most disturbingly, there was the time Con Ed intentionally cut power to numerous neighborhoods in southeastern Brooklyn after five cables had failed during a dangerous heat wave. By the end of July, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed to agree on Con Ed’s poor showing, with the mayor saying, “I can’t trust them at this point.”
“I would describe it as a national embarrassment, given the extent of it,” Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman said to the Con Ed chief. “It really sent shockwaves through not just New York City, but I think the public, across the country, that New York City isn’t ready. That we’re hearkening back to the bad old days, when our infrastructure clearly can’t sustain 80+-degree temperatures. It took us back to 1977, when the Bronx was burning and things were hurtling out of control.”
After stating that the public’s confidence was “really shaken,” Hoylman asked Cawley whether he had a logbook showing which engineers were responsible for failures of the protective relay system that caused the disruption. “There’s a team working on it,” Cawley answered. “I don’t have that level of detail.”
Hoylman shot back: “To me, it suggests there’s some malfeasance. Some improper training.”
State Senator Zellnor Myrie, who represents District 20 in Brooklyn, turned the focus to the Brooklyn outage and said that the constituents who lost power in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens had been ignored. “I was there two nights in a row, until midnight, going into apartments with people that had life-saving medical equipment,” Myrie said. “We had seniors who were distraught, and we had folks who were really living in fear.”
“We have a robust program to reach out and have people register as life-saving equipment customers,” Cawley explained, during a response to a different Assembly member, who had asked whether Con Ed knows “who’s gonna die if their machine shuts off.”
The Con Ed president remained calm during both his prepared remarks and the aggressive questioning, and frequently answered direct questions with long-winded descriptions of infrastructure failures. “We invest about a billion dollars in operations and maintenance,” he said at one point, in response to a suggestion that Con Ed wasn’t adequately committed to system upgrades.
Numerous politicians brought up climate change and concerns that power outages would grow more frequent as summer temperatures grew higher. (At one point, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic dropped an unexpected Megan Thee Stallion reference, saying that “we are known for having Hot Girl Summers” in Queens.) And several state senators accused Con Ed of valuing its shareholders more than its customers—and questioned why an investor-owned, for-profit company is allowed to maintain such a monopoly in the city, forcing Cawley to repeatedly defend the very notion of privately held utilities.
“We know that the dividends to Con Edison’s shareholders this year are projected at nearly $1 billion,” said Brooklyn State Senator and DSA member Julia Salazar. “Meanwhile, Con Edison continues to ask for rate increases in order to pay for Con Ed’s increase in costs. Do you think it would be reasonable… if instead shareholder dividends were used to cover the utilities costs?”
Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, a frequent critic of the company, also challenged the business model: “Con Edison is among the most expensive utilities for customers in the nation. I wonder if that is related to the fact that you are a private entity, you are making profits, paying dividends and at the same time you are a monopoly. I question whether we have turned the economic incentives upside down.”
Cawley insisted that Con Ed’s priority is its customers, and that “we have the right balance in terms of the way we capitalize the business.”
The hearing began around 10:30 a.m. and stretched late into the afternoon, with additional testimony from John Rhodes, chair of the New York State Public Service Commission, among others.
Late in the day, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Amber Ruther, called out Con Ed for cutting off power to 33,000 homes without warning in “one of the most vulnerable areas of the city, according to the city’s heat index, but not to wealthier areas.”
“[Con Ed] jeopardized the safety of thousands of New Yorkers, profiting by neglecting the grid for decades and letting things break,” Ruther testified. Later, Ruther added: “It’s time that we bring their billions in profits under democratic control to invest in the renewable energy future we need to survive.”
On Wednesday morning, Con Ed executives will appear before the City Council for a joint committee oversight hearing on the outages. You can watch the livestream of the hearing here.