RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The increased frequency of severe storms has many utility companies rethinking their strategies. In New York, Superstorm Sandy devastated the mostly-below ground electric grid that runs through the nation's financial capital.
From member station WNYC, Ilya Marritz reports the city's main utility, Con Edison, is looking for ways to protect its aging infrastructure.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: After Sandy hit, the stock exchange closed for the first time since 9/11. Many people missed a week or more of work. And millions discovered how difficult life is without electricity.
JOHN MCAVOY: The reason we invited you specifically here, and we appreciate your coming, is because we'll show you some of the equipment...
MARRITZ: The day after the flood, Con Edison invited a pack of journalists to tour its East 14 Street substation. This is the place where an explosion had lit up the night sky. John McAvoy, a Con Ed executive, pointed to a line of grime at about hip level.
MCAVOY: And you can see the marks on the wall in fact. That's where the river was up to...
MARRITZ: He said that the river breached water barriers, triggering fuse boxes to automatically shut down. That cut the electricity supply for much of Lower Manhattan. Water also disabled the underground system that brings power into many buildings. At the time, McAvoy and other officials emphasized the unprecedented nature of the storm. Fourteen foot tides? Who had ever seen anything like that?
But what if Sandy isn't so different? What if it's part of a pattern? This is the disturbing fact that now faces John Miksad, Con Edison's senior vice president for Electric Operations.
JOHN MIKSAD: Four of the five worst storms that affected our customers occurred over the last two and a half years.
MARRITZ: It started with a 2010 nor'easter, then Hurricane Irene, then a freak snowstorm right before Halloween, and then Sandy.
What does that tell you?
MIKSAD: Something seems to be changing with the weather that is making it much more difficult for utilities.
MARRITZ: Miksad is a Con Ed lifer. he started as an intern more than 30 years ago. As he contemplates climate change, he sees only a few ways to adapt the system.
MIKSAD: We could raise walls, we could make equipment submersible, or we could raise the equipment itself. Those are the three possibilities.
MARRITZ: And, in fact, the utility has already begun doing some of these things. Over the past six years, Con Ed has spent millions installing waterproof switches and making underground transformers submersible. Planners and environmentalists say those are good steps. But more needs to be done. And it's not just up to the utilities.
Anne Siders has worked with the U.S. Navy on climate change planning. She's now with Columbia University. Siders notes that Con Edison's regulator, the Public Service Commission, requires all utilities to have storm plans.
ANNE SIDERS: But these storm plans are really the short-term approach about, you know, we're going to sandbag these buildings to protect them, or we're going to turn off power in these areas to try and protect that infrastructure. And they're not the longer-term questions about how we build our infrastructure in the first place, or how we decide where to locate things.
MARRITZ: For its part, the regulator says it does take climate change seriously. Any real fixes will cost lots of money, and customers will probably foot the bill. The early estimate is that $800 million will be needed just to protect the 10 electric substations that flooded during the storm.
It's a lot of money. But then again, New York City lost an estimated $5.7 billion in economic activity due to Sandy. Buying some expensive protection now could save money when the next storm hits.
For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York.
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