When the Lights Go Down in the City

As the sun sinks over the Hudson River, New York City doesn’t power down. Lights flicker on and soon the famous skyline is lit in a blaze that defies the natural clock. But few stop to consider where and how that electricity comes from and what it means when it isn’t there. That is such a frightening consideration that we prefer to pretend it isn’t a possibility.

New York City owes a debt of thanks to Thomas Edison for the brilliance that the skyline projects at night. He is the reason that we have the power to be the city that never sleeps. And it’s not because he invented the light bulb—he  didn’t. Rather, it is because Edison gave us the grid that serves as the basis for powering the city, even today. He saw the big picture. But when was the last time we really considered the grid’s potential to support our growing needs? Are we capable of seeing the big picture now?

Times Square on a summer night.

A recent article by Joel Achenbach in National Geographic describes the present American electrical grid—it’s a kludge: “an awkward, inelegant contraption that somehow works.” It’s outdated; it isn’t suited to meet our power demands. And we are a power hungry society with an endless supply of gadgets that demand to be fed on current. We march around with chargers at our disposal for laptops and cellphones—I have both in my bag and I admit that I use them regularly. When out devices die, we become restless for power, expressing disbelief that power is denied to us. We’re a productive society, we tell ourselves. We need our power.

In 2003 the eastern seaboard learned how weaknesses can compromise the grid. I remember that August afternoon well partly because later that night it gave me the opportunity to see the moon as I had never seen it previously. (It was so darned bright. I was awed, and the memory stuck.) I was free from classes and was enjoying an early dinner with S when a hum filled the air. We looked at each other in confusion and then everything shut off—including the fan that we were using to ward off the heat. “The power’s out,” I remember saying. “That’s weird,” said S. He checked the fuse box. No luck. “I think it’s the whole block,” I said. “What? No way.” We went outside to find our neighbors doing the same. “Do you have power?” “No, we don’t either.” And we stood there, unsure what to do with ourselves. S and I passed part of the night on our garage roof. We actually enjoyed ourselves, but that’s beside the point. The point is that our grid was never meant to support the network it currently covers.

Exterior of the Pearl Street station. Courtesy: Photographic Services of the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc

At 3 pm on September 4th, 1882, Thomas Edison unveiled a system for commercial electric lighting and power in lower Manhattan—the first of it’s kind in the US. He threw the switch in JP Morgan’s office. Good marketing: Electricity would be good for businesses.  This demand drove the construction of the Pearl Street Station and ushered in the electric utility industry. Edison had found a means of successfully competing with gas lighting, which was already established. His plan featured a reliable source of central power generation that could be safely and efficiently distributed.

But it was far from easy going. Edison needed to figure out how to generate enough power. He wanted to use a generator (a dynamo), but at the time, there weren’t any in existence powerful enough to serve his needs. Edison did what he knew how to do: he developed the ‘“Jumbo” dynamo, a 27-ton machine that produced 100 kilowatts, enough to power 1200 lights.” It took six such generators to power the square mile of lower Manhattan the Pearl Street Plant Serviced.

And people were yearning for power:

By October 1, 1882, less than a month after the opening the station, Edison Electric boasted 59 customers. By December 1, it had 203, and a year later, 513.

Site of Pearl Street Station, 2010.

Today, New York’s grid is extensive. It spans 10,775 miles and serves more than 19 million residents. But the issues that Edison faced haunt us still. Generating enough power remains paramount.  According to Achenbach, we still don’t have an efficient means of storing energy. It must be consumed as it is produced, and so creating enough electricity to meet demand—particularly on a hot summer day—is a challenge. But Edison also had to deal with the issue of actually supplying the electricity his customers wanted. He managed to convince the Mayor to allow him to install 100,000 feet of wiring. It was an expensive venture, and it still is. According to Ray Dotter, company spokesman for one of the regional operators that make up the eastern grid, no one wants to consider the cost of burying the lines in any but the most urban places: “There’s a need to build new lines. But no matter where you propose them, people don’t want them.”

And then there is measuring use. Imprecise instruments were used in the 1800s, none of them able to track usage over time. In the spring of 1882, the electric meter was revealed, and it’s a model we still use today—not the model, but the idea itself. But think about how it works in terms of our lifestyles now: a human being has to come to your home to get a reading. Achenbach points out additional difficulties: the power company only knows there’s a problem when you call and say so. What’s missing from the equation is instantaneous feedback, which a greener, smarter grid may be able to provide. (Oh, and in case you were wondering, the first electric bill was sent to the Ansonia brass and copper company on Jan. 18, 1883 for $50.44. How does that measure with your current bill?)

The smart grid, Achenbach writes, needs to be more automated, self healing, and tolerant of green initiatives. It will inform us about usage, and allow us to make choices about consumption that are associated with cost. Like the Pearl Street system, our grid works despite its problems, but they are a lurking concern.

Believe it or not, less than one percent of the energy used to power NYC comes from renewable resources. So what’s the holdup? Good question. Better, smarter, cleaner energy is not cheap. Utility executives worry about what happens if the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine—they like stability, but the comfort it offers appears to be rather thin.

Plaque marking Pearl Street Station.

As demands for power grew, Pearl Street tried to stretch to provide the supplies needed. Transporting energy over distances was an issue for Edison because he used direct current (DC). His competitors, Tesla and Westinghouse, were proponents of alternating current (AC) and believed it could meet these demands as well as those from businesses for higher voltages. Though Edison was hesitant to concede, AC eventually won out. Still, the Pearl Street station operated successfully in downtown Manhattan until a fire broke out in 1890. The station was rebuilt and it continued to power the city until 1912 when it was finally decommissioned, but it showed us the way. And it lit our skyline. But as in the case of the DC to AC power transition, it’s time to look to other alternatives for urban areas.

What are your cities and towns doing to manage electricity usage? Let’s hear it below. While you type your response, feel free jam to Journey.

11 responses so far

  • drskyskull says:

    As I tweeted, nice post! It's worth noting that power consumption problems are not limited just to the electrical grid -- in Charlotte, we've had two major gasoline shortages over the past 6 years, both sparked by hurricanes in the gulf and the fact that pretty much our entire supply comes through that pipeline. I was so pissed off by the Katrina-induced shortage because we had basically had warning of such a problem by the earlier shortage and nothing was done about it.

    Oh, and when I think of power outages in New York, I think of this song.

  • kdcosta says:

    Thank you! And you're right--the entire infrastructure is in terrible shape. What really resonated for me with Achenbach's piece is that this isn't a secret in the industry, and they know that change is coming, but they're hesitant to invest due to cost. So I'm left wondering what will inspire a look at the big picture.

  • physioprof says:

    In 2003 the eastern seaboard learned how weaknesses can compromise the grid. I remember that August afternoon well partly because later that night it gave me the opportunity to see the moon as I had never seen it previously.

    Awesome fucken post! I was in the City that day as well. We went to one of our neighborhood restaurants that night, and they had the whole fucken place lit up with candles. And they were basically just cooking all the food they had, and serving it all up family style without anyone even ordering anything, because they figured it was gonna be spoiled by the next day of they didn't cook it.

  • Katherine says:

    I keep my laptop and DS fully charged, so if the power goes out I still have my gaming needs covered. Internet needs too, if the cut doesn't affect the phone lines. What's fun is when only one phase goes down: some stuff works and some doesn't. E.g. at the movies when that happened once they had picture but no sound.

    Never had an entire city go down though - the one time when a large portion of my home city went down I was at work, which has a backup generator to power most of the building. Other exciting things that happened then: we (a water utility) sent our mobile backup generator out to the most cruicial pump station and kept things going, but the water wholesaler (think dams, treatment and transmission rather than reticulation) didn't have a backup plan and let untreated wastewater spill out into the harbour because the pump stations had no power. Also all the traffic lights in areas without power weren't working (obviously) - that's how we tell at work if the power actually went off or if it was just a surge; by looking at the traffic lights out the window.

    • kdcosta says:

      Untreated waste water? Yuck! What was the solution for the cleanup? And does this happen frequently where you are? I can only imagine the chaos if that happened here.

      • Katherine says:

        Cleanup? It doesn't appear as gross as it sounds, remember wastewater is 99% water. I don't remember how big the spill was either unfortunately.

        As far as I know, as this city has a significant portion of combined public drainage (combined = wastewater & stormwater), there are frequently overflows during wet weather as the combined system does not have capacity for heavy rain. The only action that I'm aware of when this happens is that signs are put up at nearby beaches recommending that people do not swim there. However these "wet weather overflows" are typically mostly stormwater and so a bit more dilute than "dry weather overflows" which are mostly wastewater. Wastewater overflows on land (during dry OR wet weather) of course are required to be cleaned up.

        • kdcosta says:

          Ah. Now I have a better understanding--a similar thing tends to happen on the Long Island Sound if we have a summer of heavy rainfall. We also had an issue in my neighborhood one particular sewer grate would back up and flood a corner of the neighborhood. It was terrible for the folks with the house adjacent to the grill because after heavy rains, their house would be left in a pool of 3 feet of water all around. The village board wound up breaking the road and shifting the gradient so that the water would flow into the sewer instead of pooling. When the street was originally built, there were no houses in that corner of the neighborhood. It was an instance of existing infrastructure not being able to support the development.

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