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The Neighborly Substation: Electricity, Zoning, and Urban Design

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The Neighborly Substation: Electricity, Zoning, and Urban Design

January 10, 2009
Energy & EnvironmentOther

In 1879, the remarkable thing about Edison's new lightbulb was that it didn't burst into flames as soon as it was lit. That disposed of the first key problem of the electrical age: how to confine and tame electricity to the point where it could be usefully integrated into offices, homes, and every corner of daily life. Edison then designed and built six twenty-seven-ton, hundred-kilowatt “Jumbo” Engine-Driven Dynamos, deployed them in lower Manhattan, and the rest is history. “We will make electric light so cheap,” Edison promised, “that only the rich will be able to burn candles.” There was more taming to come first, however. An electrical fire caused by faulty wiring seriously damaged the library at one of Edison's early installations—J. P. Morgan's Madison Avenue brownstone.

Fast-forward to the massive blackout of August 2003. Batteries and standby generators kicked in to keep trading alive on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ. But the Amex failed to open—it had backup generators for the trading-floor computers but depended on Consolidated Edison to cool them, so that they wouldn't melt into puddles of silicon. Banks kept their ATM-control computers running at their central offices, but most of the ATMs themselves went dead. Cell-phone service deteriorated fast, because soaring call volumes quickly drained the cell-tower backup batteries. Traffic lights went dark. The dedicated fiber line that links City Hall to the city's broadcast media went out when a Time Warner hub lost power. The radio communications system for police, fire, and other emergency services progressively lost capacity as the backup batteries for many radio repeaters ran down. Elevator mechanics who happened to be attending a seminar at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown helped extract guests trapped in the hotel's elevators. Releasing a group stuck in the middle of a twenty-story blind shaft required breaking a hole through a wall on the fifteenth floor.

But enough already on what New York endures when its power occasionally fails. The rest of the story is one of steady economic growth and improving quality of life, made possible by the continuous development of the city’s electrical infrastructure. Electricity occupies a uniquely important role in the infrastructure of all of modern society, but nowhere more so than in the heart of the metropolis. It powers all the communications and emergency response networks, hospital emergency rooms, air-traffic control, and street lights, as well as the electrically actuated valves and pumps that move water, oil, and gas. More broadly, electricity energizes every factory, office, or building that depends on computers, communications systems, pumps, motors, and cooling systems.

Over the course of the last century, electricity progressively superseded other forms of energy at the front end of life, where people turn energy into enterprise, information, entertainment, health care, and hot coffee. This happened because electricity, like a great city, does more, faster, better, in less space. Other energy transmission systems operate at the speed of sound; electricity moves at the speed of light. It is by far the fastest, densest form of power that has been tamed for ubiquitous use.

Year by year, innovation has also allowed increasingly compact transformers, switches, and wires to handle and deliver power more efficiently, quietly, and safely. In power plants, huge, noisy piston engines gave way to compact turbines. The vast spiderweb of overhead electric wires that once canopied the streets of Manhattan went underground. For most city dwellers, electrical infrastructure has gone the way of the Cheshire Cat—everything has disappeared but the smile, the magical outlet that keeps life lit.

And that, ironically, now threatens to make electricity the victim of its own success. Because electricity can so unobtrusively power so much of the city’s economy, demand grows in lockstep with the city itself. But because the hardware that supplies the electricity keeps so well out of sight, City Hall tends to keep it out of mind, and city residents reflexively oppose deployment of new electrical infrastructure anywhere near their own lights, toasters, and computers.

As Hope Cohen lucidly discusses in this very important paper, New York can have it all—the power it needs to remain the most vibrant city on the planet, delivered ubiquitously, silently, and invisibly through substations harmoniously integrated into the cityscape. Designed by architects and incorporating modern technology, electrical substations can now have more in common with a telephone exchange or a Web server farm than with a conventional factory or power plant. New York is unusual in having a zoning code so out of touch with the modern realities of electricity. Developers and Con Edison should be allowed to work together to integrate electrical infrastructure into new industrial, commercial, and residential projects. And as other cities have already done, New York should explore possibilities for deploying substations beneath public open spaces.

Such policies would lead to much more efficient, profitable use of immensely valuable land—while maintaining supplies of secure, reliable power, provided by an electrical infrastructure that continues to recede from public sight. Ms. Cohen has it exactly right: “People don’t like ugly, scary substations near them. But substations don’t have to be ugly and scary. And they do need to be nearby.” This paper explains how to turn those three, indubitable facts into practical public policy. New York will grow richer, brighter, and more beautiful when it does.