By Chele Farley
“The power’s out again.”
It’s become a frustrating and familiar refrain in my hometown of Tuxedo and the entire 18th Congressional District, where consistently poor service by electric and cable providers have left thousands of residents in the dark and/or without internet for extended periods of time over the past few years.
But the issue became critical last week when Tropical Storm Isaias hit and resulted in power outages throughout the Hudson Valley including nearly every single customer in Putnam County, and 125,000 without power throughout the region days later.
With so many of our residents working remotely from home during the coronavirus, and with our children scheduled to “return” to school over the internet in the coming weeks, it is critical that our area’s residents be provided with reliable and secure power and internet access.
It’s not just a problem in New York. The United States’ aging energy infrastructure has led to major disruptions across the country. To that end, we need a comprehensive plan to upgrade America’s faltering electric grid to improve its reliability, make sure it’s safe, and ensure that cable and internet providers are able to reliably meet demand.
Hudson Valley families know the problem all too well. In April, nearly 27,000 customers in northern Westchester lost power, some for days, after a minor rainstorm knocked down utility poles servicing Cortlandt, Peekskill, Yorktown and Ossining, among other areas. Shortly thereafter, nearly 600 customers in Tuxedo lost power midday on a Tuesday when a tractor-trailer crashed into two utility poles and a transformer, bringing down power lines.
If such minor events can cause extensive outages, it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands were left without power last week. Even when power is restored in a timely manner, internet outages can persist. After a tree fell on utility lines servicing Somers and parts of North Salem last month, electricity came back relatively quickly. But the internet remained down for days, leaving a significant number of the area’s residents without the crucial ability to work from home.
America’s outdated power grid has suffered major outages and electrical disruptions at a sharply increased pace since at least the mid-2000s. For three decades between the 1950s and 1980s, major power outages averaged about five per year; in 2007, 76 outages were reported for the year, increasing to more than 300 in 2011. According to a 2015 Pew Research report, the U.S. suffered more electrical disturbances from 2013 to 2015 than any other developed nation on earth. Losses to businesses, as a result of power outages, reach nearly $150 billion per year. Most troubling of all is that the ever-present risks posed by our outdated power grid leave the U.S. uniquely vulnerable to foreign attack and the erosive effects of climate change and natural disasters.
In short, the U.S. desperately needs to upgrade and replace its energy grid. Yet governmental progress on this important issue has continually stalled. Electrical grid improvements are periodically tacked on to infrastructure bills that go unpassed, and our politicians continue to sit idly by, apparently content to allow our grid problems to go unaddressed.
Now, with the country in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever that the U.S. finally acts on the overdue upgrade and repair of its vulnerable electrical infrastructure. A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences recommended that the electricity industry expand its efforts to convene regional emergency preparedness exercises, and that federal agencies should oversee the development of inventories of reliable backup power, including the potential deployment of fleets of mobile power generators.
In New York, Gov. Cuomo announced at the beginning of the year that the expansion of cell service and the elimination of the state’s approximately 4,000 so-called “dead zones” had become a state priority.
All of this represents a start at fixing a problem that has been decades in the making. But as an engineer, I know that there is still much more that needs to be done. We need to invest significantly in shoring up residential broadband networks so that employees and students can work reliably and safely from home. We need to ensure that cell towers have long-lasting back-up batteries and fuel for their generators, so the cellular network doesn’t also go down when there are electrical outages.
And most importantly, we need a comprehensive plan, on the local, state and federal levels, to ensure that every American, no matter where they are located, is provided with adequate and reliable access to power and the internet.
Our future depends on it.
Chele Farley is the Republican candidate in the 18th Congressional District and was a former Stanford educated engineer.