The heart of the grid
The heart of the grid

An intentionally drab brick building nestled somewhere in the Capital Region - The Post-Star agreed not to disclose the exact location, at the request of National Grid - serves as the epicenter of the area's electricity grid.

The utility tries to keep the facility's location secret for security reasons, officials said.

Inside, a gaping, NASA-esque control room houses an 80-foot-long-by-14-foot-tall beige wall, on which is depicted the utility's array of substations and power lines that serve more than 500,000 customers from Albany to Ticonderoga.

Finch Paper LLC, the Glens Falls Hospital and the Feeder Dam can all be located on the sprawling display, a real-time depiction of power flow throughout the region.

"When something happens, the guys will literally get their butt up there and see what's going on," Peter Salerno, the lead supervisor at the utility's Eastern Regional Control Center, said this week during a tour of the cavernous facility, which is almost entirely devoid of natural light, save a small corner window.

Like the work center itself, Salerno, a behind-the-scenes engineering guru who can pinpoint even grocery stores and television news stations on the map, is often removed from the public limelight.

But he and his co-workers' enigmatic presence becomes tougher to preserve when problems arise and candlelight replaces the halogen variety.

"It was the case, back 20 years ago, that if you got the TV back on in time to see the Giants get their butts handed to them, you were all right," said Salerno, who has spent the last 15 years at the facility. "Today, you lose power for 15 minutes, and it's like the computer is off, you didn't save that nine-page paper, and we've got problems. Small outages can wreak a lot of havoc."

In the bucolic stretches of upstate New York - particularly north of Exit 16 of the Northway - those problems often supersede the loss of a term paper.

That's in part due to this region's bucolic nature, where trees - the top cause of National Grid outages in fiscal 2007 - vastly outnumber people, and power lines can be tough to get to.

The northern stretches also represent something of the end of the National Grid road, where power lines are scarce, and it's difficult to keep electricity flow constant while work is being done.

"North of Glens Falls, that's the end of the line," said Patrick Stella, a National Grid spokesman.

A perennial problem

Business owners who find themselves in this area have at times lamented thousands of dollars in lost revenue because of multiple-day outages.

And with the thin layer of snow blanketing the area this week, residents will find it easy to recall scattered power outages that have accompanied each of the last few winter seasons.

Such lapses are part of the reason New York's Public Service Commission has cited National Grid for failing to meet reliability standards in 2004, 2005 and 2006. It's an unwanted distinction utility officials may face again at the end of this year.

"Believe me, we're not happy when we don't meet those goals," Salerno said.

That's why National Grid began, in 2005, pouring $1.4 billion into its infrastructure in a five-year effort to replace poles and power lines and to segment the network, allowing for more maintenance with less need to cut power.

Though much of that work is likely to go unseen by the average resident, company officials want customers to know they're working - 24/7 in the case of those at the control center - to keep toasters toasting and televisions entertaining.

More line crew members, totaling more than 700 in upstate New York now, will be added each of the next three years to improve response time during outages.

Work has also begun across Warren County and in Cambridge and Saratoga Springs to improve the power infrastructure, company officials said.

Counting on callers

But there is also this message as winter approaches and electricity becomes an even more coveted commodity: The company can't do it alone.

To that end, National Grid, one of six utilities in the state, is going on a public relations blitz to inform the public that residents play a vital role in bringing outages to a swift end. Though the company has looked into it over the last six months, technology that would send automatic outage alerts to the control center is still another five to seven years out, according to utility officials.

Instead, customers need to call and let the utility know about any problems. "Until we get a call, we don't know anything about it," Stella said.

After presenting a video on Wednesday of a disgruntled golfer who pitched his nine iron into the woods, striking a piece of a power company's infrastructure and creating what started as a spark and evolved into a startling, mushroom-shaped ball of flames, utility officials said they also want customers to remember this: Not everything that happens can be controlled by the utility.

"It's tough to tell how many squirrels will go on kamikaze missions," Salerno said.

At the end of the day, company officials stressed their work can't be simplified to the level of turning on a lamp.

"Some people think we can just flip a switch and that we can just turn power on and off," Stella said. "It just doesn't work that way."

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