Entergy Tower on Loyola Avenue in New Orleans

Entergy New Orleans shut off over three times the amount of power it was required to last week during the historic cold streak that battered power systems in Texas and throughout the South, company officials told members of the New Orleans City Council on Thursday. And to the dismay of City Council members, the company still doesn’t know why.

“The council, the entire council, is to the point of being incensed,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said at a joint meeting of the council’s utility and public works committees. “Our frustration level has absolutely peaked. We do not have any type of understanding or received any explanation from you as to why people lost power when they shouldn’t have had to lose power. It’s just, it’s really incredible. And this is the first we’re hearing it.”

Tuesday’s meeting was called specifically to discuss last week’s blackouts, which disconnected power to 26,000 New Orleans customers. During the meeting, Moreno announced that the council plans to vote on Thursday on a resolution to open a formal, independent investigation into the rolling blackouts.

“Fines are on the table,” said Councilman Jared Brossett. “Based on whatever the prudence investigation results find, it is up to this body as regulator.”

In Louisiana and across the South, last week’s cold front forced energy systems to purposely disconnect customers in order to avoid a more catastrophic system failure. The cold caused higher energy usage as people tried to heat their homes, and it forced some power plants to go offline. 

When energy customers try to pull more power from an energy grid than is available, the consequences can lead to widespread equipment damage and long-lasting outages. Generally, before that happens, energy systems will implement rolling, temporary blackouts.

That was one of the main reasons that millions of people across Texas lost power. And that’s what happened in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday when Entergy New Orleans purposely shut off power to 26,000 customers for just under two hours. 

The City Council already had questions over how Entergy chose the neighborhoods it targeted for shutoffs, and why that included a Sewerage and Water Board facility. Council members also wanted to know why Entergy didn’t issue any communications to customers as the blackouts were occurring.

“Guys you’re killing me here, I’m just going to be honest,” Moreno said. “Communication was a nightmare. And then people still don’t understand why you shut off certain neighborhoods. And now we find out that you didn’t even need to shut off certain neighborhoods.”

‘We left people in the cold’

During the meeting, Entergy New Orleans officials revealed for the first time that while the company was only directed to shut down 26 megawatts of power, the company ended up taking more than three times that much offline Tuesday night. 

The directive to implement rolling blackouts came from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which manages and oversees the regional energy grid for an area that stretches from Louisiana, through the midwest and all the way up to Manitoba, Canada.

Entergy New Orleans is part of MISO South, which was founded in 2013 and includes the bulk of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana along with a small portion of eastern Texas. 

During the cold weather, MISO South issued a directive to its member operators, like Entergy New Orleans, that they had to “shed load” and disconnect customers to ease the burden on the overall system. MISO told Entergy New Orleans that it needed to cut 26 megawatts of power.

But Entergy New Orleans ended up cutting 81 megawatts of load, more than three times the amount MISO had directed. 

“We left people in the cold, then, that didn’t need to be left in the cold,” Moreno said. “Businesses shut down that evening. There were restaurants full of people because it was the evening of Mardi Gras that were finally able to make some money during this pandemic, that had to shut down because they lost power and customers walked out of their businesses.”

Other council members were similarly frustrated. Councilman Jay Banks called it “woefully unacceptable,” while Councilwoman Cyndi Nguten called it “extremely disturbing.”

Entergy officials attending the virtual meeting were quiet and slow to respond as council members started firing off frustrated questions about the shut offs. 

“I am sitting here just seething and bewildered,” Banks said. “And I’m hearing crickets. I don’t know if my mic is broken or if no one heard me. … Somebody say something.”

Moreno ended up calling for Entergy New Orleans CEO David Ellis to join the meeting to answer questions. 

“Your people can’t explain why more power was shed than needed.” Moreno said.

Ellis joined the call, but didn’t have the answers to the council’s questions either. He said that he too was unaware of the 81 megawatt figure before today. He said that the company was still working to finalize those numbers.

How did Ellis “not know until this meeting that the number of Entergy New Orleans customers that were disconnected far exceeded the number required?” Banks asked.

“My response to that question is that we’re still working to confirm those numbers,” Ellis said. “The event was a critical event. We had to get offline very quickly.”

Ellis explained that when MISO issues a directive to shed load, the company has only 30 minutes to comply. Entergy and MISO officials attending the virtual meeting explained that the directive is put into an automated program that then shuts off power to certain parts of the city based on a categorization system that aims to reduce the impact to public safety and health by avoiding critical infrastructure and businesses. 

“The computer systems did what they did and we are trying to unwind that and find out why they reacted the way they did,” Ellis said.

Entergy’s Vice President of Transmission, Jim Schott, also attended the virtual meeting on Tuesday and agreed that it appeared to be an issue with Entergy’s automated program.

“Their programs, they’ll pick feeders of low priority to fill out that 26 megawatts. It appears there were problems in those programs that led to more assigned to New Orleans feeders than others. We’re trying to work through understanding that.”

The lack of answers led Moreno to unexpectedly announce that she wanted to open a formal investigation into the issue, run by the city’s utility advisers. 

“It’s rare that I’m speechless, but I am absolutely just amazed by this,” said City Councilwoman Helena Moreno at the Tuesday meeting. “And then y’all can’t even explain today why that happened.”

Long time utility adviser Clint Vince told the council that he agreed there should be an investigation.

“With extreme weather conditions, turbulent weather associated with climate change, that’s the new normal,” Vince said. “And we have to be in a position of resilience and communication where we’re no longer surprised by extreme weather events, even if they are unpredicted and higher than usual. We have to have levels of preparation that we have not needed in the past.”

Correction: An earlier version of article misidentified Jim Schott as an MISO employee. He is an Entergy employee. In addition, as originally published, Schott’s first name was incorrect. (Feb. 23, 2021)

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...