New York Times - 2 Aug 06

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 20 Jul 09)

City Dims Lights as Heat Strains the Power Grid

Published: August 2, 2006

To reduce here electric bills, Beatrice McGuire, 86, chooses not to use the air conditioner in her apartment in Washington Heights. She is a City Meals-On-Wheels recipient. Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times.

Trying to forestall the crippling - and potentially hazardous - effects of the fiercest heat wave of the summer, New York City undertook a range of preventive measures yesterday, from shutting off the colored lights on the Empire State Building, to limiting air-conditioning in the fancy seats of Yankee Stadium, to ordering some municipal buildings, like the Rikers Island jails, to use their generators.

As temperatures around the region reached as high as 100 degrees, and as the heat index, which takes humidity into account, climbed to 113, sweltering New Yorkers sent the daily demand for power to record highs, despite city efforts to conserve. And today's forecast calls for even hotter weather.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg set in motion an array of plans to help those most at risk. Some 400 "cooling centers" were opened in New York. Public pools stayed open an hour later than usual, until 8 p.m. City hospitals were asked to top off the fuel in their generators, and while there were no reports of fatalities, or even serious injuries, due to the heat, it was unclear what the human cost of the heat wave would be. Across the city, nurses and social workers were sent to visit the homebound elderly.

"This is a very dangerous heat wave," Mr. Bloomberg said. "It really is more than just uncomfortable. It can seriously threaten your life."

The city's biggest employers, including stock exchanges, banks and tobacco companies, heeded requests from Consolidated Edison and the mayor to reduce power consumption by dimming lights and shutting down fountains and some elevators. Some switched to generators to lighten the load on the power grid.

The steamy weather touched everyone and everything: "We're pretty melty, especially on the subway," said Don Carlson, a lawyer, who was on Wall Street yesterday meeting with a client, not out sailing as he wanted to be.

Mr. Carlson, 45, was in a poplin suit - not that he would stay in it too long. "I will be out of this suit in 15 minutes" - and into shorts and flip-flops, he said.

Firefighters sweltered at a blaze in Queens and at emergencies elsewhere; restaurants complained that they lost walk-in business by having to keep their inviting paneled windows closed; even the famed Pepsi-Cola sign on the East River in Queens was switched off.

The National Weather Service issued excessive heat warnings for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, lasting until 5 p.m. tomorrow. A stagnant-air warning was also issued, as the weather service said the heat index rose to between 108 and 113 degrees yesterday afternoon.

Across the region, thermometers read like basketball scores: in Central Park yesterday, the high was 95 degrees; at La Guardia Airport, it was 100; and even along the shore, it was 99 in Belmar, N.J.

Today, temperatures are expected to be even higher, and the heat index is expected to be 110 to 115 degrees. The heat index will remain above 90 degrees even after the sun goes down tonight, the weather service said.

Snapshots from the heat: Sweat pours off the blond ringlets of a 7-year-old boy on the climbing wall in Central Park. An Orthodox Jew has to change his traditional garb at least six times a day. A short-order cook partakes of water, ice cream and the walk-in freezer. And visitors to Central Park have trouble finding a horse and carriage.

"We wanted to take a carriage ride in Central Park, but there's no horses. It's too hot," said Lisa Moreira, 37, who was slathering sunscreen on her two children and her four nieces visiting from Los Angeles. She said they were headed to the American Museum of Natural History for dinosaurs and air-conditioning.

Her husband, Marcio, put it this way: "This is a Brazilian who says it's stinking hot."

Some reactions to the heat reflected a sense of consternation lingering from the recent blackout in western Queens. Then, people saw how fragile the city's power grid could be, and yesterday it was tested yet again.

Late last night, utility companies reported scattered power failures throughout the region, with about 8,000 customers having lost power on Long Island, about half of them in Babylon; about 4,050 customers without power in New York City and Westchester County; and 7,500 throughout New Jersey, including 250 customers in Montclair. Utilities apply the term "customers" to anything from a one-family house to a large apartment building.

As people cranked up their air-conditioners, records for electricity use toppled from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic states.

A new record for a single hour's use was set yesterday in New York State, according to the New York Independent System Operator, which runs the power grid. Shortly after 3 p.m., the "real-time load" was 33,869 megawatts, well above the previous record of 32,624 megawatts, which was set two weeks ago. One megawatt powers about 1,000 homes. Con Edison also reported record levels of demand. At 5 p.m., the utility said its power use had reached a high of 13,103 megawatts, surpassing the record of 13,059 megawatts recorded at 5 p.m. on July 27, 2005.

The Long Island Power Authority surpassed 5,600 megawatts yesterday for the first time, and PSE&G in New Jersey set a record of 11,001 megawatts.

All of which necessitated a widespread conservation plan, the mayor said. At a news conference yesterday he announced the dimming of the necklace lights on the city's four East River bridges, and the same on the Coney Island parachute jump. The George Washington Bridge went dark last night. So, too, did city landmarks, including the Chrysler Building and the Staten Island Ferry sign in front of Whitehall Terminal. The mayor said several private institutions, including Fordham and Columbia Universities, as well as Rockefeller Center, had agreed to cut back on power.

At Citigroup's headquarters on Park Avenue, one car in each elevator bank was taken out of service, and the air-conditioning was turned down. The big "Citi" sign atop the company's tower in Long Island City, Queens, was switched off.

The torch and crown of the Statue of Liberty will remain illuminated so they are visible to pilots, but the lights in its base have been turned off. Thermostats in city buildings were set yesterday at 78 degrees, as they were at the main hall on Ellis Island and in buildings that are part of the sprawling Gateway National Recreation Area. Barry Sullivan, superintendent of the recreation area, said he gave his employees permission to wear "professional-looking shorts and short-sleeved button-down shirts sans ties."

In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell suspended admission fees at all state parks and beaches yesterday, a policy that will stay in effect today. In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki did the same at the state's beaches, parks and pools.

While there were relatively few emergency calls related to the heat, city health officials said yesterday that they had tested all their generators and were ready for a possible influx of heat-stricken patients.

It usually takes 24 to 48 hours for the effects of the heat to be felt, said James Saunders, a spokesman for the city Health and Hospitals Corporation. "This is Day 1," he said.

At the Queens Adult Care Center in Elmhurst, the residents abandoned their bedrooms for the air-conditioned smoking room, where at least 20 men and women sat together in the cool air. Staff members gave out ice water and handed fans to residents who did not have them.

In Richard Becker's room, two white oscillating fans stirred the heat, but did little to cool the air.

"These fans are basically useless," Mr. Becker, 55, said. "I could feel the sweat pouring from my body in the morning."

Not far way, a fire at Queens Boulevard and Broadway destroyed at least six businesses. More than 150 firefighters responded. Six were injured, including one from heat exhaustion.

"You sweat, that's what you do," Firefighter Yurgi Ganter said, as he peeled off nearly 100 pounds of gear. "I've lost four or five pounds in water weight today."

For some, there was relief, however tenuous and brief. Emilio Ramos, a security guard at Macy's in Herald Square, had the bad luck yesterday to be posted at a door on Broadway, which caught the sun all afternoon.

"The other security guards told me the secret," he explained, "to come and stand by the doors."

Even as he said this, two young girls and a whoosh of cool, blue air rushed out.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Michael Amon, Sewell Chan, Ann Farmer, Kate Hammer, Patrick McGeehan and Emily Vasquez.