Public Advocate calls for city control of Con Ed after widespread blackouts

Jumaane Williams ConEd
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams outside Con Edison’s Flatbush Avenue headquarters in Fort Greene on Aug. 7.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

He wants to give power to the people!

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is calling on the city to take control of the electric utility Con Edison, slamming the company for massive power outages following this week’s tropical storm Isaias. 

“The time has now come for democratized energy, public power. It is clear that what we have, what exists, does not work,” Williams said at a press conference outside of Con Ed’s Flatbush Avenue headquarters near Fulton Street in Fort Greene on Aug. 7.

Williams’ demands come after his recently-released report provided a roadmap for the city to buy Con Ed’s grid, and for the state to expand its existing utility company, the New York Power Authority.

Because the scheme would need state approval, the Public Advocate is currently drafting a resolution for the Council calling on state authorities to give Gotham the ability to take over the distribution and transmission assets of local utility companies, such as Con Ed.

Buying the company’s New York City network would be paid for by issuing city or state bonds, which would be an expensive undertaking — as the investor-owned company boasts $12 billion in annual revenues, $48 billion in assets, and a $25.16 billion dollar market capitalization. 

His energy push comes as more than 8,000 Brooklyn households were left in the dark when Isaias blew through the city on Aug. 4, toppling trees and pulling down antiquated above-ground power lines mainly in the borough’s southern belt.

Con Ed said the next day that it was working to restore more than 90,000 ratepayers systemwide, the second-largest power outage in the company’s history following Superstorm Sandy.

Making matters worse for Con Ed, some 264,000 residents in northern Manhattan and Queens were left without power on Friday morning due to a glitch in the company’s transmission system, Gothamist reported.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Aug. 5 directed the state’s Public Service Commission to investigate the utilities after the widespread blackouts, calling their performance “unacceptable.”

“The large volume of outages and the utilities’ failure to communicate with customers in real time proves they did not live up to their legal obligations,” Cuomo said in a statement. “The fact that many customers still do not know when their power will be restored makes it even more unacceptable. The worst of this situation was avoidable, and it cannot happen again.” 

Last Summer, Con Ed intentionally cut service in southern Brooklyn nabes like Canarsie, Marine Park, Mill Basin, and Flatbush, claiming it was to prevent damage to the grid during a heat wave — which prompted pols like state Sen. Zellnor Myrie to accuse the company of harming Black Brooklynites in an effort to keep the power flowing to more well-heeled, predominantly white nabes. Con Ed strongly denied those allegations. 

Williams’ report is not the first call to seize the city and state’s power, with Park Slope Assemblyman Robert Carroll introducing three similar bills in late 2019 — which would push the New York Power Authority toward more renewable energy sources and create a publicly-owned utility to cover the Big Apple and some nearby counties, among other things.

While Carroll’s measure failed to pick up much steam, Williams hopes the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will spur legislators to finally take steps to make power distribution public — a process that could take up to a decade.

“My hope is that now that we are in a pandemic we are really reviewing and trying to see how we can not go back to normal and how we can go back better than normal. So what better time to get this started than now,” he said.

The recent blackouts have prompted a number of other Brooklyn pols to join Carroll and Williams’ calls, including Democratic state senate nominee Jabari Brisport, Councilman Antonio Reynoso, and Assemblywoman Mathylde Frontus

In a statement, a spokesman for Con Ed said that they were focusing on safely returning power to their customers, but that they will review Williams’s study.

“Right now we’re focused on the safe restoration of our customers. We are happy to discuss how to best advance the city and state’s clean energy goals. We will review the report,” said Allan Drury.