Lights Out

I turn on the light, I grab some ice from the refrigerator and I give no thought to what a gift it is to have electricity until a three-hour storm with high wind yields a major power outage making energy my top concern. In our neighborhood many of us have private wells for water. Our pumps need electricity to work. No electricity no water. “Outrageous!!” “Disgraceful!” neighbors and friends said. In our neighborhood it lasted from Tuesday afternoon August 4 to Friday, August 7 at 10:00 pm. Others in our hamlet waited three more days for power.

What exactly happened this time? The amount of knowledge or understanding that I have about electricity would not fill the bowl of a soup spoon. Therefore, before I answered this question, I needed to understand how this magical thing works.

Here is a short primer on electricity: A power plant generates electricity from various sources including solar, wind, water, coal and natural gas. This created energy leaves the plant at a high voltage and is sent along through transmission lines to a substation. There are three substations that serve our community. They are located in Sparkill, Closter and Harings Corner in New Jersey.

The purpose of a substation is to take the aggregate power from the generation plant and serve as a way station, stepping down and converting voltage. It is then sent out through its distribution system which includes poles, primary and secondary feeders (which are wires - in some cases buried) and transformers. A transformer is the cylindrical gray unit at the top of poles. Transformers step down voltage even more and send it to a secondary feeder (wire) and deliver it to my light switch.

These three substations work together to shift power where it is needed. If one substation is offline or approaching load, voltage is shipped to another station to maintain a seamless flow. Wake up! I am not done here! We are getting to the interesting part. In the middle of 2000, it was clear that more energy was needed in this part of the county. To this end there was a fourth substation proposed by Orange and Rockland. This station was to have been located in Tappan in the woods off Oak Tree Road opposite the start of the Joseph Clarke Trail.

The proposal met all the criteria except one: community support. Despite the recognized need, neighbors in Tappan and Palisades were overwhelmingly opposed. My much-missed late neighbor Paul Prisco attended a meeting at town hall in opposition along with many others. I was opposed to it myself. The record of these meetings is online. The process of O&R seeking to sway the community went on for two years. Finally, in 2010, the issue came to a halt.

Were members of the community short sighted in this opposition? It is not for me to say except to note off the record comments by two current and one retired employee who say yes, a Tappan Substation could have made the difference and kept the power going in Palisades. In this August storm the velocity of the wind shear was extremely powerful. It snapped a pole on Rt 340 and brought down primary and secondary wires all over our service area. The power juggling began among the three substations. Had the Tappan substation existed it is very possible our lights would have flickered and remained on.

That is interesting to me because I wonder if rejecting the substation so thoroughly, then blaming the company when the power goes out in a storm, is a just argument. Alright, so O&R lost the battle for a substation, but recognized the need remained. A “work-around” was developed to meet this need. That work-around includes upgrades to the Harings Corner and Closter substations. Mike Donovan, spokesman for Orange and Rockland, says this $28,000,000 project will be completed in December of this year. In addition, after superstorm Sandy, other “storm hardening” solutions were put into effect. So what are these “storm hardening” solutions? Taller, stronger poles, rub resistant wire, spacer cables and, drum roll please, TREE TRIMMING. Will any of this matter in the next storm? They might help, we hope they do, because energy needs are increasing in Palisades along with the rest of the area this utility serves.