In the latest installment of "How NYC Works," NY1's Roger Clark heads out on a high-voltage ride to find out how electricity gets from the power plant to your apartment.
When night falls upon the city, darkness doesn't. It's overcome by the glow of towering skyscrapers, storefronts and street lamps. This is truly the city that never sleeps¬, made possible by something that's all around us and easy to take for granted. Electricity powers our lamps, our televisions, our refrigerators, all the conveniences we use each and every day. So how does it all work?
The city gets its power from companies across the state, the northeast and Canada. They generate it from natural gas-fired plants, nuclear plants, hydroelectric plants, solar panels and wind farms, among others. They pass the energy to distributors like Con Edison and PSE&G that deliver it to homes and businesses.
Every day, the companies that make power announce how much electricity they can provide the next day and what they'll charge for it.
An organization called the New York Independent System Operator manages the state's electrical grid and decides which bids to accept.
"The bottom line is, whoever can provide the lowest marginal price is the power plant that'll be running," says Con Edison CEO John McAvoy. "We can put power plants on and off or increase or decrease their output. The customer doesn't see any of that, except that they see, to the benefit of their bills, us keeping prices as low as possible."
Well, not as low as some people would like, but that's another story.
Back to generating power. We visited a plant in Astoria run by a company called NRG. This one can make enough electricity to power up to 500,000 homes.
If you want to make electricity, you need something pretty powerful to get the ball rolling. In this case, it's a jet engine. That's right, just like in an airplane. The jet engines run on either natural gas or ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.
We met up with Lee Davis, NRG's East Region President, to get the lowdown on how it all works.
"This control room is kind of the brains of the engine that basically makes electricity,” Davis explains. “So, basically, what you're doing here is taking that natural gas, putting it through a jet engine, and it basically turns a generator, and that generator makes electricity and sends it off to Con Ed's system."
Most companies send it over to Con Ed via large overhead transmission lines. The NRG facility does it differently.
"We actually put it across a cable that's underground into one of their switchyards here on the site," Davis says.
So now it's up to Con Ed to get this power to you. The company uses tunnels to move electricity from borough to borough. Inside the tunnels are pipes that carry electricity. Within each one are three separate cables.
Con Ed has eight tunnels in the city. We visited the deepest one, about 260 feet below ground. It's also the longest one. It runs for about a mile between Queens and the Bronx. Workers use electric cars to get from one part to another.
John Bronson, otherwise known as JJ, has been at Con Ed for 39 years.
"They built this, like, in 1915. It's 20 feet in diameter. We're on the top level. There's a lower level down below," Bronson explains.
Bronson says his crews spend a lot of time doing inspections and maintenance, but the electricity doesn't do much hanging out. It's basically in and out.
We visited another tunnel that just entered Manhattan. Power in these tunnels is not quite ready to be used in your home or business. You know why? The voltage is just way too high, and that's why it needs to go to a substation, which is, conveniently, just upstairs.
There are around 100 substations in Con Ed's system that house giant transformers whose job it is to, well, transform the voltage, in this case, from higher to lower. Con Ed Substation Area Manager Jonathan Brengel explains how that happens.
"We're going from 345,000 volts down to 138,000 volts and then eventually, we're going to take that 138,000 volts under the streets of Manhattan, lower it to 120 volts, which will be safe for use for our customers for their appliances and lighting," Brengel says.
As it winds its way through town, the electricity passes through more local substations, where the voltage is stepped down even more. It's all to satisfy the demand for energy of a place that is home to more than 8 million people and welcomes some 50 million visitors a year.
More energy is consumed in Times Square than just about anywhere in the world. So what better place is there to find out how electricity runs beneath the streets of our city? I went down into a manhole to see how it works, but first, I had to put on fire-retardant clothing. That's because there are live 13,000-volt cables down there.
Clark: So what do we have here down in this manhole?
Gerry Turiano, a Con Ed technical specialist: We have two different types of our electric system. We have high-voltage cables, which is right here, what you're looking at. These cables come from substations, and they feed into our transformers out in the street. Those transformers step down the electricity to our low-voltage, which are these cables here," he says.
So where are all of those transformers Gerry are was talking about? Well, many of them are underground beneath the street grates that we walk over every day. See those cables? That's where 13,000 volts comes in. It makes its way through the transformer, and by the time it gets out, it's 120 volts, ready to be used in your home.
The location of the street transformers makes them vulnerable to flooding, which can wreak havoc on the system. We visited Con Ed's transformer shop in Queens, where work is done to stormproof equipment.
Transformers, and the network protectors that go along with them, are now encased to withstand all types of flooding. They can be submerged and still work properly. It's all in response to recent storms like Hurricane Sandy.
Back on the streets, the electricity has finally made its way to your neighborhood.
Now, electricity is here on your block. It's at the proper voltage. We looked at how it is brought right in to your place.
Jessica DiDonato, of Con Ed Energy Services, explains this final step.
"This is the street through here. The electric service comes in at 120 volts from a manhole in the street into the customer's premises. We come in, connect to the customer's equipment, and they distribute it among all of the apartments in the building," she says.
It's done through meters, which, of course, Con Ed also uses to figure out how much you owe on your bill. The company, however, keeps tabs on more than just that.
When you have such a big system, you have to have way to keep track of it, and that's what happens at Con Ed's Manhattan Control Center. There, you can use a map of Manhattan to check out how many outages are going on, and all the different networks. If this were the space program, the map would be mission control.
"We have 95,000 miles of underground cable, over 260,000 underground manholes and vaults, so below the sidewalks of the streets of New York there's a tremendous amount of energy being transmitted and distributed to get to our customers," McAvoy says.
So that's how electricity gets to your place, and that's how New York City works.