Councilwoman Helena Moreno proposed a slate of new accountability measures on the city’s power company, Entergy New Orleans, this week in the wake of Hurricane Ida, which knocked out electricity to the entire city for days and left some people in the dark for nearly two weeks. That includes an independent study into whether the city should rethink the company’s monopoly control over the city’s electric system.
The measures include an investigation into the Ida outages and Entergy’s response, formal regulatory complaints on the transmission failures that caused the outages, and a study on alternative ways to manage the city’s power system. For now, Moreno said she is leaving all options on the table, including taking away the company’s monopoly control over the city’s electric market and either allowing more market competition or creating a non-profit or city-owned power company.
“I’ve been hearing from constituents on this well before Ida, but since Ida, it’s really been voluminous, the amount of calls I’ve received about this,” Moreno said in an interview. “Maybe there’s a better way, maybe there’s a better option.”
But, she added, fundamentally changing how the city gets its electricity will be neither fast nor easy, and that ordering a study is only a preliminary first step in that process.
“What is ahead is going to be really hard. It is not going to be easy, it’s going to be really tough. But there are really great possibilities before us.”
The measures will be considered next week at the City Council’s Sept. 22 utility committee meeting.
“We are eager to discuss this matter with the Council at the upcoming Utility Committee meeting,” Entergy New Orleans spokeswoman Lee Sabitini said in an emailed statement.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a coalition of consumer and environmental advocacy groups — the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and the Sierra Club — announced it had filed a motion with the City Council calling for a series of accountability measures, several of which overlap with Moreno’s proposals.
A number of the proposals are related to Entergy’s controversial New Orleans Power Station, or NOPS. The three groups filing the motion — allied under the banner of the Energy Future New Orleans Coalition — led the opposition against NOPS while Entergy was seeking approval from the City Council to build it starting in 2016. The council ended up approving the plant in 2018 and it went into operation last year.
Part of Entergy’s argument in favor of NOPS was that it had “black-start” capability, meaning that it could be powered up without any external electricity. That’s important, the company argued, in situations where the city is cut off from the regional transmission system.
“This could be a tremendous benefit if New Orleans is electrically ‘islanded’ from the rest of the interconnected transmission grid, as it was after Hurricane Gustav,” then-Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice said in 2017 in a written testimony submitted to the council.
That’s exactly the situation New Orleans found itself in two weeks ago after Ida took out all eight transmission lines that bring power into the city. But NOPS’ black-start capability was never used, and the city stayed completely without power for days until the company was able to reconnect the first transmission line.
“This catastrophic occurrence is the very event ENO used to justify the request for approval of NOPS,” said the EFNO motion. “However, NOPS could not be used until the Slidell transmission line and some distribution lines were repaired.”
As covered by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, the company has provided shifting justifications as to why the black-start capability wasn’t used.
“I still don’t understand exactly what NOPS did,” Moreno said. “I get it that the company said it worked perfectly, but what does that mean? Obviously I have questions around black-start.”
Moreno said that would be part of the Ida investigation she’s calling for. She said she also had questions about where the power generated by NOPS was going. Only New Orleans customers are on the hook for the estimated $650 million bill for the construction of the plant, and Moreno wants to know whether all the benefits are staying with Orleans Parish as well.
“I also am wondering if power was distributed from NOPS, did it go to other areas outside of New Orleans? Because it’s only Orleans Parish ratepayers who are paying for the construction cost of NOPS.”
She said those were some of the big questions for her, but not the only ones.
“The restoration of power, how were those decisions made? Why was the superdome lit up? I heard [Entergy New Orleans CEO Deanna Rodriguez] say it was because it was potentially going to be utilized as a shelter. I had never heard of that, Superdome folks had never heard of that, so where did that come from? So bottom line, just a bunch of questions I would need answered around NOPS and much more.”
Moreno also has questions about how and why all eight transmission lines bringing power to New Orleans failed.
The transmission failures occurred when 12 transmission towers and poles were damaged due to high winds, according to WWL-TV. One of those towers in Avondale collapsed into a rusted heap. Pictures of the damage were shared widely on social media as residents questioned whether the company had been taking good enough care of the transmission lines.
Most of the transmission system, however, lies outside of Orleans Parish and therefore outside the New Orleans City Council’s jurisdiction. Many of the transmission lines fall in the territory of Entergy Louisiana, which is regulated by the Louisiana Public Service Commission.
That’s why part of Moreno’s proposal includes filing complaints with the Public Service Commission as well as federal regulators with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The EFNO coalition is also urging the council to consider new distributed solar and battery resources that they say would make the city more climate resilient and help restore power more quickly after a storm.
“Community-driven solutions, like solar with battery storage, are key to the post-storm rebuilding of an energy system in New Orleans that works for everyone,” said a Tuesday press release from the EFNO coalition. “This rebuilding begins with the Council holding Entergy accountable for its dilapidated and neglected energy system dressed up in false and misleading P.R.”