Not in Westchester?
July 12, 2020


Con Edison headquarters in Rye.
Con Edison headquarters in Rye.

Cuomo-Con Edison Clash Over Outages Once Again

We've heard it before.

But is Gov. Andrew Cuomo more serious this time?

After Manhattan’s power outage that left nearly 73,000 customers on the West Side without electricity for about five hours, Cuomo declared that if Con Edison, the utility that provides most of New York City’s power, does not shape up, it "can be replaced."

Last weekend's blackout knocked out digital displays in Times Square and forced the evacuation of Madison Square Garden during a Jennifer Lopez concert.

On Sunday, July 21, the governor was steamed once again as a heat wave left nearly 53,000 New Yorkers without power. 

Cuomo took to Twitter to say, "We've been through this situation w ConEd time & again & they should have been better prepared—period. I am deploying 200 State Police, 100 generators & 50 Light Towers. . . ."

The stiffling heat prompted city officials to cancel a Times Square commemoration on Saturday of the 1969 moon landing and an outdoor festival featuring Women's World Cup soccer star Megan Rapinoe and musician John Legend. Con Edison officials had predicted a record demand for electric power over the weekend.

Cuomo’s office said it directed the State Department of Public Service to expand its investigation into ConEd outages, which was opened a week ago.

It is not the first time Cuomo has threatened the utility company. In 2018, after outages in Westchester in the aftermath of a storm, Cuomo raised the prospect of revoking the company’s license if it did not speed up power restoration. The company also drew the ire of Westchester County Executive George Latimer and state lawmakers who held public hearings to grill Con Edison executives about their company's slow response.

New York recently reached an agreement to allow Charter Communications to continue operating in the state after the Public Service Commission voted to kick the cable company out of the state for failing to meet its contract agreements. Like utilities, cable companies are regulated by the state Public Service Commission and must be licensed to operate. Once the dust settled, Charter ultimately was allowed to continue operating in New York if it keeps its promised improvements.

"Blackouts cannot happen... in the city of New York. And that can't happen for no reason," Cuomo said on the Brian Lehrer radio program last week. "There was no high load. They don't know what happened."

About six months ago, Con Edison faced an investigation after an electrical fire at a substation turned New York City’s night sky blue, temporarily disrupting flights and subway service. In July 2018, it was the subject of a probe after an asbestos-lined steam pipe ruptured in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. And a power failure in 2017 led to significant delays on the subway during a morning commute, triggering an investigation that cost Con Edison hundreds of millions of dollars.

“If they don’t give me an answer quickly, I’m going to go to ConEd headquarters,” Cuomo said in a television interview. “If I don’t get a firm answer forthwith, I’ll go speak to Mr. ConEd myself.”

All utilities in New York are licensed to operate by the state and regulated by the Department of Public Service’s Public Service Commission. The agency has the power to revoke an operating license or to impose penalties for violating regulations or services outages. For example, the state imposed an $18 million penalty on Con Edison in 2007, in response to a massive 2006 outage. Should the license be revoked, a different utility company would have the opportunity to step in and take over providing electricity.

Revoking a license would not happen overnight and would likely take months, if not years, to finalize. Cuomo has already announced that he plans to conduct an independent investigation into the blackout and whether the utility is meeting its legal requirements under its contract, which also will take time. The five-person Public Service Commission could then vote on whether or not it would revoke the license, a decision Con Edison would likely challenge in court. It took the PSC more than a year to impose penalties after a 2006 power outage in Westchester and Queens.

Cuomo threatened to revoke operating certificates of the investor-owned utilities and the Long Island Power Authority after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, although there was some question of whether the Public Service Commission had that authority at the time. The state adopted tougher authority for the PSC to revoke operating certificates of utilities as part of the the 2013-14 budget, but it has never been utilized.

But ultimately Cuomo also counts on the campaign support of Con Edison executives and labor unions.