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Recent blackouts on both East and West coasts are causing commercial property owners to reassess their need for backup power. The likelihood of more-frequent blackouts means backup power must evolve from ensuring the safe exit of office workers to enabling core business functions to continue uninterrupted. That’s a major shift in preparedness that construction executives should consider in future planning.

In New York City on July 13, 2019, a Con Edison blackout left 72,000 customers in Manhattan and Queens without power primarily because of a flawed connection at an electrical substation. Eight days later, a second Con Edison blackout left more than 50,000 customers, mostly in Brooklyn, without power due to high usage during a heat wave. These events occurred even though, as Con Edison stated, the New York City grid is one of the most complex and technologically advanced in the world and contains multiple layers of redundancy.

In northern and central California in late October, 2019, intentional blackouts were implemented by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) on a massive scale in response to out-of-control wildfires. “Never before in California history have more than 2 million people gone five days without electrical power because of the intentional safety policy of a utility,” reported the Los Angeles Times. It was the second massive blackout in California in two weeks, after PG&E had earlier shut off power to almost 2 million people in rolling blackouts.

The blackouts on both coasts are remarkable not only for their breadth but for the range of causes—from limiting wildfires sparked in part by faulty, above-ground, power lines to a flawed connection at a substation to overuse during a heat wave. The conditions creating those causes are not likely to subside, and Con Edison warned this summer of more service outages to come. In California, The Washington Post writes, “blackouts are redefining the prosperous state.”

With more severe weather occurring nationwide, and most power lines still located above ground, property owners must achieve a new level of preparedness, as blackouts can no longer be considered unexpected. Fortunately, there are numerous steps that can be taken.

Cogeneration plants, similar to those located in some properties in New York City, allow the sites to operate entirely off the grid. Penn South, the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing complex just five blocks south of the lower end of the Manhattan blackout, had no reason to be concerned by that event. Similarly, Rochdale Village, the Mitchell-Lama complex in Greater Jamaica, had no reason to worry about the blackout in Queens. With their own cogeneration power plants producing all the electrical power, heating, air-conditioning, and domestic hot water for their entire residential developments and other amenities with no connection to an outside utility company, the sites were unaffected by the blackouts.

Commercial office buildings are invariably on the grid and depend on backup power during blackouts. Typically, this power is used primarily to ensure the safety of occupants rather than maintaining functioning workspace. However, two initiatives should be explored in that regard.

First, expanding the use of backup generators beyond that already mandated by Code should be actively evaluated. In New York City, for instance, the building code currently requires backup generators in newer buildings to provide auxiliary power for elevators (one per bank, three in total), stairwell lighting (for which batteries are also acceptable), and fire alarm systems. Other services that might wisely be covered by backup generators include the following: security desks, building office power, domestic water pumps, sewage ejector pumps and freeze protection loads, among others.

Second, property owners should explore expanding the use of backup generators to cover the minimum power needed to maintain essential office functionality. That level of power will vary depending on the office, but many firms can manage on a lower usage level with employees using laptop computers from home. Providing generator power to tenant IT rooms may result in staff being able to work remotely, thus keeping revenue flowing.

Increasingly, property owners with demanding energy requirements are also asking firms to evaluate the cost of creating remote, redundant, office locations as well—adding facilities not to address the needs of business or workers but simply to prepare for blackout disruptions. While this was more common in the days before cloud computing, it is regaining interest again.

Con Edison’s demand response program provides building owners with financial incentives to start their generators during high-demand periods, typically a hot summer day. Depending on the site, these incentives, coupled with additional rent received from tenants for the availability of generator back-up, make installing generators viable from a return-on-investment perspective.

Blackout preparedness must now be a higher priority than ever. Those who fail to take the necessary steps will truly be powerless in the face of events that they could have anticipated.


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