Louisiana power outages renew questions about utility giant’s preparedness for storms

Source: By Douglas MacMillan and Beth Reinhard, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Entergy has been fined for deferring maintenance, criticized for moving too slowly to reinforce its grid and has resisted calls to increase its investments in renewable energy.

High winds blow palm trees as Entergy Corp. trucks are parked in New Orleans on Sunday. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)

When Hurricane Ida hit, hundreds of power substations went down and a 400-foot transmission tower collapsed on the bank of the Mississippi River — a symbol to some Louisianans of the futility of an energy monopoly that has not moved quickly enough to guard against the extreme weather that pummels this region with growing frequency.

Entergy, the power provider for 3 million customers in the Gulf region, has over the past decade been fined for deferring maintenance of its aging infrastructure and criticized for moving too slowly to reinforce its grid against severe weather. The company resisted calls to increase investments in renewable energy sources, which climate advocates see as a way to prevent widespread outages.

As Ida lashed Louisiana, New Orleans’ rehabilitated levees stood firm, preventing the kind of extreme flooding that made Hurricane Katrina so devastating. But the rain and winds caused widespread damage to the region’s power grid, leaving more than 1 million without power. Entergy, which serves the vast majority of customers who lost electricity, said Monday that restoring power to the entire region could take weeks because the storm knocked out all eight transmission lines bringing electricity from power plants into New Orleans.

Officials say it’s still too early to lay blame for the outages. It will take days to assess the damage, which impacted more than 170 substations and over 180 transmission lines throughout the state, according to Colby Cook, a spokesman for the Louisiana Public Service Commission.

But some residents, fuming in the dark and the heat, are questioning whether more could have been done to mitigate the damage of the storm. Much like Californians coping with wildfires, and Texans recovering from a winter of dangerous outages, Louisianans see themselves at the mercy of outdated infrastructure, utility companies and regulatory regimes that have failed to adapt to the intensifying threats of climate change.

“We can’t just keep building and planning the same way we always have because otherwise we are stuck in the dark in 90 degrees in August,” said Logan Burke, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Affordable Energy. “If Entergy had taken a harder look at alternatives to fossil fuel and resilience planning, we wouldn’t have people using Twitter and Facebook to find out where they can charge a cellphone.”

Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff for the president of the New Orleans City Council, which oversees Entergy’s operations in the city, said the council plans to open an inquiry into the utility company’s role in the outages that followed Hurricane Ida.

Entergy is a publicly traded holding company that operates several regional utilities throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The company says it began “hardening” transmission lines against the threat of storms in the 1960s, when Hurricane Betsy caused widespread flooding and power outages. The damage prompted the company to reinforce equipment to withstand winds of up to 140 miles per hour, the speed of Betsy’s strongest winds, according to a resilience plan the company published in 2016.

The utility pledged to upgrade its infrastructure again after hurricanes Katrina, in 2005, and Gustav, in 2008. A hardening study commissioned in 2007 showed Entergy that it needed to support coastal transmission lines with concrete and steel poles, rather than wood poles, the company said.

According to Entergy, the tower that fell near the Mississippi River on Sunday had passed inspections and was deemed to have no structural issues as recently as December. It’s unclear whether the tower was built to withstand the type of winds produced by Hurricane Ida, which reportedly hit 150 mph on the coastline.

“I think it’s hard for them to prepare for a Category 4 storm that takes out the Entergy Louisiana transmission towers,” said Clinton A. Vince, a D.C. attorney who advises the New Orleans City Council.

Jerry Nappi, an Entergy spokesman, said the utility invested $4.2 billion in its transmission lines from 2014 to 2019 and more recently, fortified infrastructure in areas surrounding New Orleans that have been hit hard by hurricanes in the past.

Regulators say the company has fallen behind on making the necessary investments to prevent outages. A decade after Katrina, the New Orleans City Council complained the company had yet to provide it with “a comprehensive, detailed storm hardening plan,” including detailed costs, a timeline and benefits.

During a council meeting in 2018, an Entergy executive admitted to deliberately reducing the company’s investment in the power grid by about $1 million, because, she said, the company was seeing strong performance and “we didn’t want to spend money on a system that was performing extremely well,” according to notes included in a City Council report.

According to the report, Entergy’s New Orleans division spent $10.5 million on distribution in 2015, down from $11.7 million the year before. In the years that followed, the unit steadily increased spending on distribution.

That slight drop in funding was responsible for an increase in customer power outages from 2013 to 2017, according to the report. The regulator fined Entergy $1 million and asked it to increase investments in the grid.

New Orleans is the only city in the United States that regulates an investor-owned energy utility when a state-level agency exists, and it relies heavily on outside consultants to do the work at a cost of more than $7 million a year. Entergy critics say the unusual oversight means the city is less prepared to deal with power crises.

A 2015 report directed by the city’s inspector general found that the outsourcing arrangement leads to higher costs and that, because there was little in-house expertise, “the recommendations made by the outside consultants went mostly unchecked.”

In an interview this week, former inspector general Ed Quatrevaux, who retired in 2017, called Entergy “a formidable force … that mostly does anything it wants.”

Tuozzolo, the City Council president’s chief of staff, said the council has taken steps to rely less on outside consultants, hiring six new employees over the past three years and reducing adviser costs by $1.2 million annually.

The council’s technical adviser is Legend Consulting Group, based in Denver. The president of the firm, Joe Rogers, did not respond to requests for comment this week.

In May, the council adopted a “renewable and clean portfolio standard” that requires Entergy to meet certain targets for weaning off fossil fuels and severely reducing carbon emissions by 2050. Advocates for renewable energy said the effort falls short of their ambitious goals for a city grappling with more frequent and ferocious storms due to climate change.

A coalition of environmental groups wanted to require Entergy to invest more aggressively in solar power, battery power and microgrids that could be used to power pockets of the city in the event of a natural disaster. And the advocates criticized the council’s decision for not accepting their proposed restrictions on nuclear energy.

In response to the calls by climate activists, the company said, “Continuing to insist on a 100% renewable-powered electric grid as a feasible solution to address climate change, when volumes of scientific and industry studies demonstrate otherwise, is the intellectual equivalent to denying that climate change exists.”

In 2019, the company threatened litigation if the council accepted the proposals advocated by the coalition, known as Energy Future New Orleans.

“Entergy fought that effort as hard as I’ve seen a utility fight anything politically,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, an industry watchdog group. “They have a scorched earth opposition to these things.”

The environmentalists also lost a battle to stop Entergy from building a $210 million gas plant a few years ago, despite embarrassing revelations that the utility hired a contractor who paid actors to speak in favor of the plan.

The city fined Entergy $5 million over the scandal. The company disputed the council’s ability to levy the fine but agreed to pay the $5 million to repair the relationship with the council and the community.

Alice Crites and Will Englund contributed to this report.