On Wednesday afternoon, New Yorkers’ phones started shrieking as an emergency alert warned them to conserve power or face the prospect of widespread blackouts. The city along with large parts of the East Coast are blanketed under an oppressive heat wave that is taxing the electricity grid, much as the record-setting West Coast heat wave did earlier this week.
Amid sweltering temperatures, several neighborhoods in New York City have seen electricity outages, leaving more than 3,000 residents without power, data from New York utility company Con Edison shows. The majority of the outages occurred in Brooklyn, including the largest one that affected 1,700 Con Edison customers in the neighborhood of Williamsburg.
In some areas, Con Edison has been taking extreme measures in its attempt to keep the grid running as demand skyrockets. On Wednesday afternoon, the utility reduced power voltage by 8% to some neighborhoods in the borough of Queens while crews worked to repair power equipment, affecting some 64,000 customers in more than a dozen neighborhoods. To help residents manage the heat, the firm also began distributing dry ice at one location in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Dry ice can be hazardous to use in poorly-ventilated small spaces, because as it melts, it turns into carbon dioxide gas, which is highly dangerous to breathe.
By late afternoon, a city emergency alert went out, stating, “NYC is urging all households and businesses to immediately limit energy usage to prevent power outages as the intense heat continues. Please avoid the use of energy-intensive appliances such as washers, dryers, and microwaves. Limit the unnecessary use of air conditioning.”
At a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to “urgently, urgently” conserve power to help prevent more blackouts from occurring. He said Con Edison’s president informed him that widespread power failures could take place Wednesday evening—usually a time of peak demand—if New Yorkers did not seriously conserve.
“Our electric system is dealing with real strain right now because of the severity of heat we are experiencing today, after four days in a row of intense heat,” de Blasio told reporters. “We have a real challenge on our hands. Immediately, immediately reduce the use of electricity in your home or business. This is very serious stuff, we need to assure our electric supply is protected and avoid any disruption.”
Numerous temperature records were toppled in New York and the surrounding region on Wednesday. LaGuardia saw temperatures crest at 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) while Newark topped out at 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius), both records. Boston reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time in a decade. While the temperatures aren’t quite as daunting as those seen in the Pacific Northwest, they nevertheless are dangerous to public health and infrastructure.
Officials are also asking New Yorkers to keep their distance from downed power lines, which can easily spark fires during extreme heat. On Wednesday, a line that fell in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick sparked a fire, leaving 400 residents in the dark. To lessen this danger, Con Edison has promised to spend millions to bury power lines but has stalled on the project for years.
The New York grid’s incapability to withstand the current heat wave is the latest sign that the city’s energy system is in rough shape. The outages come less than a year after the relatively mild Hurricane Isiais left thousands of people without power for days. In July 2019, a broken connection between key pieces of equipment at a New York electrical substation also plunged swaths of the city into darkness.
It’s not just New York City’s electricity system that are falling apart and unprepared for tomorrow’s climate either. Since 2000, power outages in the U.S. have increased by 67%. Just five months ago, Texas’ grid was pushed into disarray when a cold snap took much of the state’s power capacity offline. And in recent years, California utilities have used preemptive rolling blackouts in dozens of counties in an effort to stave out wildfires from downed live power lines.
These blackouts have had deadly consequences. A Buzzfeed News investigation found that at least 700 people lost their lives during the cold snap and blackout. The death toll from the Pacific Northwest heat wave is only just coming into focus, but power outages in the region may have played a role as well.
This is a developing story and will be updated.