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Entergy Fail Or Expectations Too Great?

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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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 After 100 years, New Orleans has a decision to make.  Will Entergy stay or go?  “The council's expected resolution will require it to make an important choice: will the city continue with Entergy as its energy partner or pursue another alternative,” stated Rod West, utility group president of Entergy Corporation.  What the public was expecting in the wake of Hurricane Ida was not delivered by the utility and the city is taking action.  Entergy has said they are open to the four options provided by New Orleans City Council.  Those options are a merger with Entergy Louisiana, the sale of Entergy New Orleans, a spinoff to a standalone company or a city run utility. "We are positioned to support the City Council as they evaluate various options and prepared to move forward with whatever path the council chooses,” said West.

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It seems there were many unmet expectations in this case.   In 2017, Entergy New Orleans (ENO) proposed a $232 million gas plant that would have a "black start" capability that could quickly restore power following an outage. Council members voted for the plant in March 2018.  When Hurricane Ida knocked out power citywide, council members expected the black-start technology to work.  They were disappointed.  The plant survived the storm, but it did not quickly supply power to the city. Were the expectations too great?  Were they realistic? After experiencing ‘the strongest hurricane ever to hit the region,’ should Entergy be expected to maintain power and/or restore it quickly?  Where does reality meet expectation? 

An investigation by news organizations ProPublica and NPR found that the utility, along with its parent company, Entergy, failed to take the necessary steps to protect its power grid and customers against outages.  Five independent energy and environment experts who reviewed the findings said that ENO and its parent company, had failed in recent years to reduce the scope of harm that a storm like Ida could cause. "Entergy should have an obligation to make sure that its customers have reliable power.”  said Destenie Nock, assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.  An expert in disaster planning and professor at Dillard University, Robert Collins, said ENO had a rare opportunity after Hurricane Gustav to collect billions of dollars to modernize its grid.  According to Entergy spokesperson Jerry Nappi, since 2016, the company has invested more than $6 billion in its Louisiana transmission and distribution systems. The utility is also pursuing federal funding to further modernize its grid.  "While ensuring the resilience of our infrastructure has always been a primary emphasis, we must accelerate our efforts in light of increasingly frequent and severe weather events," Nappi said.  Hurricane Ida’s 150 mph winds completely shattered the grid in New Orleans. Originally the damage was so extensive officials warned it could take weeks to restore power.  The governor’s office said damage to the power grid appeared “catastrophic.”  The hurricane destroyed a giant tower that carried key transmission lines over the Mississippi River to the New Orleans area. It’s important to note that the tower had survived Katrina but not Ida. 

"Despite a comprehensive and dedicated restoration effort that saw the overwhelming majority of New Orleans customers' power restored within a week after the strongest hurricane ever to hit our region, several members of the council have expressed their intent to introduce and support a process that could potentially have another entity own and operate electric and gas service in the city,” said Rod West, utility group president of Entergy Corporation.  Can the city improve resiliency by breaking ties with Entergy?  Or will they face the same problem when the next storm strikes?

"We are going to have future storms," then-Gov. Bobby Jindal warned after Gustav. "It makes sense to prepare our infrastructure so that we don't have these extended outages.”  One thing is certain, the area is prone to extreme weather.  But resident Wilma Banks said, “You think about all the backups, and they all failed.  I don't think it's just Mother Nature doing it alone. This is neglect.”  Is this a case of neglect or insurmountable odds?  When storms strike are customers, city officials and regulators expecting too much?

Thursday, the proposal to investigate Entergy New Orleans’ decisions before and during Hurricane Ida received unanimous approval from the New Orleans City Council.  The decision to sever ties has not been made.  “This is just a push for more information,”  Helena Moreno, president of the Council of the City of New Orleans and chairperson of its Utility Committee said.

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David Trahan on Sep 28, 2021

Entergy's problems with supplying power to New Orleans were systemic, with the basic-to-advanced infrastructure delivering power to the main distribution lines down to the street-to-street delivery. The collapse of a major steel superstructure supporting power lines crossing the Mississippi is catastrophic. It questions the primary engineering design for such a structure performing at Category 4 storm wind energy, or it was years-long corrosion leading to metal failure. Those are a couple of the fundamental questions needing to be addressed. Start with the big things first, then work down. 

The street-to-street supply will always be prone to falling limbs or trees; those are more easily remedied quickly. Let's face it, in a tree-covered city like New Orleans and its suburb will face downed local lines with whoever is supplying power.

For a century or more, the main support for power lines has been wood power poles (chemically treated dead trees). Lines supported by concrete or steel structures faired much better—the best resilient system were areas with buried supply lines. 

New Orleans is considering the option of buying the system from Entergy to manage it themselves. Consider this for a moment. The complexity of grid infrastructure and management is far too complex for a city government absent of the experience would fail in greater measure the next time a hurricane hits the city. It would be better (IMO) for New Orleans to install an internal oversight team within Entergy to participate in all of the decision-making concerning grid resilience. The inventory alone of the transformers (all sizes), power production infrastructure, power poles (wood, concrete, steel, underground, etc.), along with the external grid connectivity management, could be priority one to assess New Orleans' power stability.

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Nevelyn Black on Sep 28, 2021

Thank you for sharing details regarding supply and structure David.  Regarding your comment, "It would be better (IMO) for New Orleans to install an internal oversight team within Entergy to participate in all of the decision-making concerning grid resilience."  New Orleans City Council really should add this as an option for consideration.

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