Time Bomb: Sandy Exposes Aging US Electric Grid

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NEW YORK -- Modern America requires electricity, a utility many of us take for granted - until we lose it that is.

Just ask the thousands of Northeast residents who lived in the dark courtesy of Hurricane Sandy.

The other issue exposed by that storm is the sad shape of the country's electrical power infrastructure. Experts say there is no quick fix.

Ticking Time Bombs

America's largest cities are ticking time bombs. The problem lies in a power grid that's simply too old and can't keep up.

Transformers already exceed their intended lifespan, and a growing population puts greater stress on a framework never meant to see the 21st century.

New York City's infrastructure is among the oldest in the country. Experts say that if upgrades aren't made a priority the results will be catastrophic - and not just in the city, but worldwide.

Just weeks ago, Americans witnessed how Hurricane Sandy brought the world's financial center and America's largest city to its knees.

Experts like TransGas Developments President Adam Victor warned that multi-billion dollar disaster pales in comparison to what could happen with a complete meltdown.

"When you start having damage to the electrical transmission and distribution system, that's where its catastrophic," the plant developer told CBN News. "Essentially it's like a toaster: you start heating up the system to the point where equipment actually becomes damaged."

New York's electricity moves from power plants to transformers at a very high voltage. They "transform" it to a lower, more usable voltage that is then sent throughout the city.

If a transformer or switchyard is taken out, that connection between the power plant and all the local lines is lost. That means no lights and no water or steam. That happened during Sandy when the 14th Street switchyard exploded.

"There are hundreds of thousands of people that have no electricity, which in New York, because it's a vertical city, means no water," Victor said. "We've also seen the collapse and failure of the steam system."

Mitchel Simpler, an engineer at Jaros Baum & Bolles in New York City, explained how crucial electricity is to the steam system.

"The steam plants rely on Con Ed power to be able to operate the plant," he explained. "Some have generators, but not all. If they lose the steam plant in the summertime it is difficult, a lot of customers are in trouble."

"If they lose it in the wintertime, it's significant because now you have major residential buildings that are all dependent on steam," he said.

National Security Threat

The total blackout in New York City from Sandy lasted for days. While much of the city pulled together, frustrations grew in other areas, leading to looting and chaos. Law enforcement officers fear a longer term scenario.

"There is such a thing as right and wrong and there's such a thing as good and evil. And the evil will come out when the electric goes down," Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said.

"How long can you humanly stay on your feet when you're trying to evacuate a building, trying to evacuate the subway tunnels, trying to get injured to the hospital and keeping an eye on those people that would take advantage of the ordinary person," he continued.

"Add to that the real threat of terrorists," Lynch said. "The terrorists are amongst us...The minute we're preoccupied with getting someone from an elevator, emptying a subway train, all those other things, they will take advantage, and that's what they look for."

The electricity from the Farragut switchyard powers the financial district and the New York City subway system. But it has minimal security and flimsy gates. Imagine how accessible it is to terrorists.

"As horrible as 9/11 was to this nation and this city, had the terrorists flown two planes into this facility, the consequences would have been orders of magnitude more damaging than what actually happened," Victor said.

'Black Start' Solution

In 2001, Victor took a potential infrastructure solution to city leaders: a co-generation plant able to keep up with 21st century technology.

"This plant would be in a position, because of its location, to reinforce the electric grid and the steam grid," Victor explained. "We'd be in a place where we could actually electrify the New York City subway tunnels."

"Our plant would have what's called Black Start capability that even if the grid went down, our plant would stay up and running," he said. "We also decided to bury the plant, and on top of this plant we were going to build a park."

Victor's plan would have used private investors to pay for the plant under a public-private partnership. And he said it would have been clean and green.

"We would have cleaned up the land, we would have cleaned up the air, we would have cleaned up the water, with this facility."

Victor has maintained, however, that politics and lack of local support led to a rejection of his plan in court. He added that if this co-generation plant had been in operation, it could have kept the lights on during Hurricane Sandy.

A Matter of Money

So what's the hold-up in fixing this aging system?

"It costs money, and it's always hard for government to find money," former New York Gov. George Pataki told CBN News. "It might not be popular, and it never is popular when you have an infrastructure project...going near where someone lives or works."

"But you can't just focus on the issues of today," he said. "You also have to think about what the needs are tomorrow. And it's a balancing act and some people can't do it. Very often the future needs, the infrastructure needs are what's forgotten."

Meanwhile, Victor said he will continue to fight with the hope that city and state leaders will get on board before it's too late.

"All infrastructure that has ever been built has failed. And it's only a matter of time," he warned. "And older infrastructure, no matter how good, will eventually fail...and the sooner that we augment and we enforce this old infrastructure, the safer we will be to prevent that day of reckoning."

*Original broadcast November 20, 2012.

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