POWER: Electrocuting Con Edison

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Will the utility see the light?

The Federal Power Commission verbally electrocuted Con Edison last week for its failure to prevent the New York blackout of July 13 and to get the lights back on again quickly. In an interim report on the causes of the blackout, ordered by President Carter, the FPC accused Con Ed of "inability to provide reliable service." There were "obvious flaws" in the utility's system to begin with, said the agency. "The design of the transmission network and the protective devices designed to protect the system were inadequate." Then, said the FPC, when lightning bolts struck the system, Con Ed failed to employ emergency measures in time to shed sufficient load, did not put into operation all of its stand-by generating units and did not tell its customers quickly enough to cut their use of power. FPC Chairman Richard L. Dunham called the blackout "clearly intolerable," and his agency recommended ten immediate actions by Con Ed to prevent a recurrence, including accelerating the construction of new ties to neighboring power networks and equipping the stand-by generating equipment with remote control.

The top brass of the utility reacted with the weary indignation of a battered old fighter who has been floored by another blind-side haymaker. President Arthur Hauspurg called the FPC'S statements "inaccurate," its conclusions "unsupported" and complained that 15 hours after the report had been "leaked" to the press Con Ed still did not have a copy. His main point: The events of July 13 "were so extraordinary that they went beyond the design and capability of the system." That comment, at least, was preferable to the initial explanation by a Con Ed spokesman, who attributed the blackout to "an act of God."

If the flaws in Con Ed's system were so obvious, said Hauspurg, the FPC should have pointed them out before the blackout. Anyway, he added, Con Ed already is taking most of the short-term actions to strengthen the system that the FPC recommended, and it will not ask for a rate increase to pay for them—at least for a year or so. That is a welcome indication that Con Ed may have seen the light. Of late the company, which earned $301 million in 1976, has concentrated on improving its cash position. For the time being, though, the FPC report can only entrench Con Ed in its position as the company that New Yorkers love to hate.