August 14, 2003, was a dark day for many people in the United States—though not for officials at TransÉnergie. Just after 4:00 p.m., cascading outages starting in Ohio knocked out power to 50 million people in Canada and the U.S., including many in Connecticut and Long Island. It was just what TransÉnergie and sympathetic officials in Washington needed to put the Cross Sound Cable back on track.
The crucial suggestion came from the Long Island Power Authority. Ed Grilli and the authority’s chairman, Richard Kessel, asked their grid operators whether the Cross Sound Cable could help them get the lights back on. According to Grilli, they said it “absolutely would.” Grilli contacted the office of New York governor George Pataki, who set up a conference call late that night with U.S. Department of Energy officials, grid operators in New York and New England, and Donahue, who is CEO of both TransÉnergie and its Cross Sound Cable -subsidiary. Soon afterward, U.S. energy secretary Spencer Abraham issued an emergency order, and by early the next day the company had energized its cable. “We had always planned on being available if there was an emergency, so the facilities were left in a state where it wouldn’t be difficult to turn them on,” Donahue says. “Within 12 hours we were transferring power to Long Island, helping customers get energy—and most importantly, helping provide stabilization to the grid while the generators on Long Island were coming back on.”
Abraham’s emergency order was set to expire two weeks after the blackout, but he extended it indefinitely, arguing that the grid was in jeopardy until the cause of the blackout was determined. Abraham would not rescind his order until May 2004, after the Energy Department and Canadian investigators issued an exhaustive dissection of the blackout. By then, nine months of operating experience and a radically altered political environment had worked wonders for TransÉnergie.
Politicians, like most of us, tend to take electrical power for granted. The 2003 blackout stripped away this sense of security. Suddenly local and state officials were concerned about power grids’ vulnera-bility to everything from lightning strikes to terrorism, which cast Trans-Énergie’s cable in a new light: according to Donahue, the cable’s digital switches helped stabilize voltages on neighboring lines on 135 occasions between August 2003 and April 2004. Nine months of operation also proved that the cable was not the dire economic or environmental threat that Blumenthal had predicted. Prices didn’t rise dramatically, and no damage to the oyster beds was documented. Indeed, without the cable, Long Island would have had to pay an extra $15 million to $18 million for replacement power in 2004, according to Long Island Power Authority calculations.
On June 17, 2004, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warned Con-necti-cut, the Long Island Power Authority, and TransÉnergie to settle their squabble within a week or face federal impositions they might all regret. Grilli says he picked up the phone and found the Connecticut regulators ready to talk. By deadline day they had a deal. Connecticut agreed to let the Cross Sound Cable Company operate while it determined how to finish burying the line. The Long Island authority agreed to replace an aging cable between Long Island and southwestern Connecticut. The authority, the Cross Sound Cable Company, and Connecticut Light and Power chipped in $2 million apiece to an environmental trust fund to benefit the sound.
By the end of Thursday, June 24, all the Connecticut politicians had been located, the deal was signed, and the press releases began to fly.