It is a state of affairs that loom all too familiar after the destruction left behind from Hurricane Katrina. Now, two weeks since Hurricane Ida blew in and left parts of South Louisiana utterly devastated, the state’s power grid finds itself at the center of debate and argument. While utility companies have tirelessly worked to restore power, many Louisiana residents still struggle without basic services, electricity being the main one.
Entergy Corp. reigns as the state’s largest electrical utility and has faced numerous challenges resulting from Hurricane Ida and past monumental storms such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav over the past 15 years. Along with other Louisiana utility entities, Entergy has worked to restore electricity after these storms and sometimes rebuild entire networks. But in the same right, the restoration process has been streamlined and improved since the historic days post-Hurricane Katrina.
With the improvements come concern and criticism due to the enormity of the current power outage still reeling after Ida’s 150 mph winds tortured the state. Focusing on the New Orleans region, eight Entergy transmission lines failed during Ida. They link over 900,000 citizens to power from outside the area. While the utility company recently reported restoration to three of the eight lines, questions of why have surfaced as Ida’s damage to the south and west of the New Orleans area was far more significant.
“For all eight to fail, I’m just wondering whether this could have been prevented, and that’s what we’re going to be looking into,” said Helena Moreno, New Orleans City Council Member.
Fueled by the desire for lower costs and green energy solutions, Logan Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a New Orleans rooted group, additionally holds Entergy in contempt and said Entergy’s grid does not meet expectations.
“We’ve been led to believe the transmission system was built for this level of wind, but it couldn’t have possibly been,” said Burke.
With New Orleans being in a sense isolated due to the proximity to surrounding water, power supply has always demanded creativity. Regulators, however, will likely ask why Entergy did not utilize their controversial new $210 million plant, located in New Orleans East, to repower electricity. This is the same facility that made headlines when Entergy hired actors to pose as plant supporters when the company was lobbying the city of New Orleans to build the plant. Having been fined $5 million, Entergy promised city officials the facility would have “black start” capability, the ability to power up a grid suffering from blackout.
“It didn’t work as advertised,” said Andrew Tuozzolo, Chief of Staff to Moreno.
Entergy Louisiana CEO, Philip May, indicated the New Orleans East facility does indeed have back start capability; however, the company determined that a small disturbance could render the plant inoperable and offline. As a result, it would be more prudent to use it paired with electricity from elsewhere to offer a power load with more enhanced stability.
“If we have the ability to pursue a path … that allows us to do this in a more controlled and more robust way, that’s going to be the path we pursue,” said May.
While Moreno and others question the extended power outages, other officials have refrained from bestowing judgment and casting accusations.
“Nobody is satisfied with a week-long power restoration process,” said Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. “But I am mindful that we just had the strongest hurricane, or at least tied for the strongest, that the state has ever experienced.”
While Entergy has been building new transmission towers designed to withstand 150 mph winds, their older towers, like the high voltage tower that fell in Avondale, LA, were only designed to handle winds of 100 mph. May indicated the Avondale tower had recently gone through an inspection and passed due to it being “robustly engineered.”
Entergy spokesman, Jerry Nappi, stated that Entergy “prioritizes structures” and brings those that are damaged up to “more resilient standards” during the replacement or repair process. Resulting from the recent devastation, regulators could potentially demand Entergy to further strengthen its power grid to lessen the devastation wrought by future storms.
Upgrades and strengthening sound encouraging, but the cost is ultimately passed to the consumer. These upgrade costs could intensify the burden felt by Entergy customers still paying for previous repairs.
According to Louisiana Public Service Commission documents, Entergy customers outside of the city of New Orleans have been billed approximately $2 billion to rebuild power lines and replenish storm damage reserve funds devoured in 2005.
A major area of grid improvement incorporates underground service. Louisiana has pushed for burying transmission lines to avoid damage incurred by wind, but the cost associated with such a practice has proven quite substantial.
David Dismukes, the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University, indicated he would “caution people that redundancy comes with a big cost, and usually, when you start working and penciling the numbers out, the economics usually don’t work out on this kind of thing.”
Nick Vaccaro is a freelance writer and photographer. Besides providing technical writing services, he is an HSE consultant in the oil and gas industry with nine years of experience. He also contributes to Louisiana Sportsman Magazine and Masonry Magazine. Nick has a BA in Photojournalism from Loyola University and resides in the New Orleans area. 210-240-7188 [email protected]