Revenge of the Power Grid

Infrastructure doesn’t only exist when it fails.

Radio City Music Hall sits dark during the 2019 Manhattan blackout.
David Dee Delgado / Getty

Infrastructure is everything you don’t think about. The roads you drive on. The rigs and refineries that turn fossil fuel into the gas that makes your car go. The electricity that powers the streetlights and lamps that guide your way. All these technologies vanish into the oblivion of normalcy.

Until they break. Then everyone notices.

That’s what happened Saturday night in New York City when a power outage struck Midtown Manhattan, from Hell’s Kitchen north to Lincoln Center and from Fifth Avenue west to the Hudson River. The blackout darkened the huge, electric billboards of Times Square, forced Broadway shows to cancel performances, and even disabled some subway lines.

According to reports, the outage was caused by a transformer fire within the affected region. Power was fully restored by early the following morning. It was not the first or the most severe blackout to hit the Big Apple—another took out the whole city on the same date in 1977, and yet another struck in the summer of 2003. The causes vary—a series of lightning strikes instigated the 1977 event, and a remote software error caused the one in 2003. But deferred maintenance, increased demand, climate-change-driven weather calamities, and even the threat of cyberattack put infrastructure at greater risk.

A quick primer on how electricity works: First, power plants create it, mostly by burning fuel (or smashing atoms) that heats water to make steam that spins a turbine. (Hydroelectric generators harness the flow of water to spin turbines directly.) Those turbines move a generator, which produces electricity from the resulting kinetic energy. Plants then use transformers to step up the voltage of generated electricity and send it down high-voltage lines, which lose less energy in transit. Once it reaches its destination, other transformers step the voltage down to deliver it to substations, and eventually directly to customers.

Saturday’s blackout was most likely caused by a disabled transformer at an area substation. There are at least 50 of those in New York City, which are fed in turn by at least 24, higher-voltage transmission substations. When it comes to power, New York is unusual because of the city’s age and the density of its population, both residential and commercial. That produces different risks and consequences.

In Atlanta, where I live, storms often down trees, which take out aboveground power lines. In the West, where wildfires are becoming more common, flames frequently dismantle power infrastructure (sometimes the power lines themselves cause the fires). But across the whole of New York City—not just Manhattan—more than 80 percent of both customers and the electrical load are serviced by underground distribution from area substations. That makes smaller problems less frequent, but bigger issues more severe.

When a transformer goes down in a populous place like Manhattan, it has a greater impact than it would on Long Island, say, or in Westchester County, where density is lower. The amount of power that central Manhattan uses on a regular basis also contributes to that impact. Times Square, the theater district, hundreds of skyscrapers—it’s a substantial load. In New York’s case, supplying that load is not usually the problem. Generating facilities can be located near or far away from where their power is used, and New York City draws power from a couple dozen plants. Some of it is imported from upstate.

But much of New York’s power is still generated locally, in large part at plants along the waterfront of Queens. Those plants are older, and more susceptible to disruption from local calamities, especially severe weather. When peak demand surges—most common during heat waves, such as the ones that struck the region in 2006 and 2011—the older, less efficient generating stations have a harder time keeping up, and brownouts or blackouts become more likely.

Superstorms can also disrupt Manhattan’s delivery infrastructure, despite the fact that it’s underground. In 2011, Hurricane Irene threatened to flood traffic and subway tunnels, also putting underground delivery at risk. The next year, Hurricane Sandy disrupted a third of the city’s electrical capacity. Flooding shut down five transmission substations. Other infrastructure was affected too, including natural gas and steam services (the latter provide heat and hot water, crucial during winter and for emergency facilities such as hospitals).

Sandy inundated the subway tunnels, which rely on pumps to force out the water. Electrical failures can disrupt the cleanup process as much as flooding can. And once a subway station gets incapacitated, the impact cascades throughout the system. On Saturday night, when the Midtown blackout occurred, the MTA was forced to cut service on some lines affected by signal or station outages.

Failure, fire, and flood aren’t the only dangers that can befall transformer substations. Power infrastructure can be an appealing target for terrorism because the sites are poorly protected and the economic impact of a successful attack can be high—particularly in a city like New York. Cyberattacks are also possible. This March, a denial of service attack affected electrical systems in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, two major population centers. Intelligence suggests that the risk of similar foreign attacks is currently elevated. A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee discussed those risks in a hearing the day before the Midtown Manhattan blackout.

One way to mitigate these dangers is to make utility infrastructure less susceptible to single points of failure. Underground distribution tends to make it easier to reach electrical customers via multiple paths. Regulatory agencies such as the New York State Reliability Council also impose requirements on utility service. Con Edison, which powers almost all of New York City, is expected to design its network to operate even if some of its components fail or are lost to disaster. But new risks associated with climate change, cyberwarfare, and other factors haven’t necessarily been accounted for in the design and operation of utility infrastructure.

The perils build on one another. Climate change amplifies the frequency of heat waves, which increases electrical load, which puts greater pressure on infrastructure. At the same time, it increases the likelihood of superstorms that can cause flooding, fire, and other disasters that might disrupt nodes in the network. When utility operators designed their equipment years or decades ago, they made assumptions about load, storm surge, and other factors. Those estimates might no longer apply.

Worse, planning and implementing updates to those systems is often stymied by paltry funding, strained political will, or other accidents. The utility industries are pushing for transformation, as it were, in infrastructure design, including efforts to make the “edges” of the grid more resilient and redundant. But those plans are similarly snared in the traps of outdated investment and regulation. Worse still, the same climatological, economic, and political instabilities that help increase the likelihood of electrical-grid collapse might also increase the risk of deliberate attacks to the grid, or reduce the agility of emergency response when accidents like this weekend’s Manhattan transformer fire occur.

None of these factors wafted up to street level Saturday night, as New Yorkers muddled through the inconvenience of a few hours without power. If anything, the scenes aboveground seemed inspiring, delightful even. Broadway-musical casts and Carnegie concert musicians hosted impromptu sidewalk performances for disappointed theatergoers. Citizens took it upon themselves to direct traffic in chaotic intersections. As New Yorkers are wont to do, city dwellers celebrated these and similar acts as telltale signs of the city’s vibrancy and resilience. When the power came back on, the horde of shadows cheered in unison as electric lamps fueled by burning coal miles away restored them to the technicolor of modern, artificial light. No injuries were reported during the blackout.

But such a generous response is only possible because power disruptions are still rare, especially absent the forewarning that accompanies a major hurricane or a serious thunderstorm. The chaos caused by similar, more frequent events would quickly snuff out the surprise and delight of unelectrified life. The theater performers would sneak home out the back, wondering whether the union would consider yet another disrupted performance complete. The citizen constables would spare their bodies, out of fear or boredom. The cheers would turn to groans, as the uncertainty and nuisance of the city’s physical caprices would wear thin.

Worsening political and economic circumstances would only fuel this fire. The July 13, 1977, blackout came amid a widespread economic crisis, the Son of Sam serial killings, a heat wave, and other social stressors. The looting and vandalism that accompanied that blackout 42 years ago were surely underwritten by the increased crime of the age and the totality of the blackout, which wiped out power to the whole city for two days. But those and worse effects are still possible. If you didn’t notice, things aren’t so great in 2019, either.

The blackout is a warning that infrastructure doesn’t only exist when it breaks. That’s true not just for New Yorkers, but for most of the U.S. population, which is scattered across regions with lower density, reduced wealth, and a more fickle public-service response. Whether it sleeps or not, a city is like an iceberg: You only see the smallest bit of it aboveground, but all of it is melting.