Fixing NYC's Underground Power Grid Is No Easy Task An army of electrical workers is squirming through the tunnels beneath New York City, checking transformers, cables and power systems. And though it'll likely take days to get everything back online, experts say the storm would have damaged aboveground infrastructure even more drastically.

Fixing NYC's Underground Power Grid Is No Easy Task

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inkseep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. In the region hit by Hurricane Sandy, the fury of the storm shocked a lot of people - people like John Miksad, vice president of the New York electric utility Con Ed.

JOHN MIKSAD: We hit 14-foot tides. That was the biggest surprise. The water just kept rising and rising and rising.

MONTAGNE: The tides swamped the electric grid, much of which is underground. Given the flooding, burying those lines may sound like a bad idea, but as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, it might have been worse if the lines were above ground.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Manhattan sits over a gigantic plate of spaghetti - miles and miles of electric cable. After the 14-foot tide went up and over, it went down under, soaking a lot of that spaghetti - cables, transformers, switches, all the stuff that's hidden under those manhole covers in New York's streets.

GREGORY REED: It's a whole different world down there, believe me.

JOYCE: That's Gregory Reed. He teaches power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh but he started out crawling down those Manhattan manholes for Con Ed, to fix their grid.

REED: And it is very cramped. There's seldom room for more than one person at a time to do their work. So it's very, very difficult conditions.

JOYCE: And that's what an army of workers is doing now - squirming through narrow tunnels jammed with thick power cables, steam heating lines, water pipes, and fiber optic cables. They're checking hundreds of transformers that regulate the electricity's voltage, those grey cylinders you normally see perched on power poles. And they're looking for cables that got damaged.

REED: It's not always easy to predict where that fault is in the underground system because we can't see it. And so what you have to do is to go out and test it section by section.

JOYCE: Even equipment that's not obviously damaged has to be tested. That could mean turning power off and on for a while in a neighborhood - pretty annoying if you just got your power back. But Reed says it would've been worse if the city's grid were above ground.

REED: Consider this case, that if all of the infrastructure was overhead, a vast majority of that would be laying on the ground.

JOYCE: In fact, Con Ed officials say repairing above-ground regions will take three or four times as long as fixing the underground network. This underground system is actually designed to be resilient. Energy expert Roger Anderson at Columbia University - he's also a consultant to Con Ed - says that's because it regularly gets a salt water bath.

ROGER ANDERSON: In the winter, we put salt down on the roads. The salt melts and the transformers under the streets are routinely dealing with salt water. So all that Con Edison need to do is to drain the water out of the transformers, hose them down, and flip the circuit breaker again.

JOYCE: But Anderson concedes that flooding is a bit more challenging.

ANDERSON: Flooding has all kinds of contaminants in the water, a lot of oils, and also it comes in violently, it can wash away things.

JOYCE: Fixing the Con Ed grid doesn't solve New York's power problem completely though. There's the subway, which runs on electricity. Several subway tunnels were flooded. There's lots of electrical equipment in those tunnels. For example, if you take a New York subway and look out the window, you'll see little red and green lights along the tunnel.

Those are switches that monitor where every train is, and they all have to be checked.

ANDERSON: And in order to do that, you've physically got to walk or ride the length of the track.

JOYCE: It's a big job with a big price tag. So it's no surprise that New Yorkers are wondering, is climate change making this happen more often? It's the second year in a row that a hurricane has hit New York. Last year it was Irene. Climate scientists caution that no single weather event can be attributed to global warming.

But computer projections of a warming world do predict bigger hurricanes. At a press conference in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he's seen enough to act.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Let's assume that we decide that we're not damaging our planet and later on find out that we were. It literally could be too late.

JOYCE: So how do you protect a supercity from a superstorm? That awaits months of post-storm analysis by engineers and oceanographers and other experts. Then politicians and industry will have to find a way to raise billions of dollars to keep the Big Apple afloat. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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