A City Council hearing on Monday found no easy solutions to the December transformer fire that lit up the New York skyline electric blue. Despite City Councilman Costa Constantinides’ effort to advance greener energy as a possible solution to such problems, Con Edison executives maintained that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the Astoria incident.
“Families across the street had their foundations shook, families didn’t know if they had to evacuate,” Constantinides said. “This blue light was a spotlight, shining a light on the challenges our communities in Queens face every day.”
On the night of December 27, 2018, a fire in a power substation caused a “sustained arc flash discharge,” which was quickly dubbed “Astoria Borealis.” The malfunction not only caused an impressive light show, but knocked out power for LaGuardia airport, Rikers Island and residential neighborhoods in and around the Astoria neighborhood of Queens.
As a solution to the power outage caused the transformer fire, Constantinides proposed replacing city gas-fired power plants with battery grids powered by renewable energy sources, not just because of environmental justice, but because such power plants come with serious risks to the health of their surrounding communities, he said. And, as he pointed out, New York’s gas-fired power plants tend to be in lower-income, majority-minority communities.
“Questions have been raised about whether grid-scale battery storage facilities would have been able to mitigate these outages,” Constantinides said. “We need to transition to renewable sources and ensure our communities have a renewable future.”
Several Con-Edison executives were called to testify, maintaining that the Astoria Borealis incident was unrelated to the source of the energy, but was due to equipment failure of a “voltage monitoring system.”
“So far, we have replaced the faulty equipment, we have installed a redundant system and are working directly with the manufacturer to minimize the chance of this happening again,” said Milovan Blair, a senior vice president at Con Ed.
“What happened in Astoria was in a substation, which you would need for a solar farm, wind farm, any kind of green power that you might set up. It still could have happened regardless of what type of power we use,” said Con Ed spokesman Michael Clendenin.
Con Ed executives maintained that the company’s transition to clean energy is already underway, something about which Constantinides remarked to WCBS 880, “We’re going to hold them accountable to that.”