Damaged electric grid equipment in New Orleans three weeks after Hurricane Ida cut off power to the entire city. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Hurricane Ida brought unprecedented devastation to Louisiana’s electric grid, cutting off power to nearly a million homes and businesses in the state and leaving the company and its customers on the hook for a restoration effort that one industry expert estimated would cost more than $1.6 billion.

The entire city of New Orleans lost power during the storm, and it took 10 days until the restoration was nearly complete, in which time 10 people in the city died due to excessive heat. Outside of New Orleans, there are still 15,000 customers in Louisiana without power 23 days later.

The storm was a major one, and damage was expected. But the magnitude of the wreckage and the persistence of the outages are causing regulators, residents and advocates to question whether Entergy has done enough to build a resilient grid for an era in which climate change produces more frequent and severe storms. 

For some, the answer is clear.

“Entergy has delivered a rusting, aging, neglected energy system dressed up in PR,” Monique Harden, Assistant Director of Law and Policy with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, told The Lens. “Right now we don’t have as much as a plan from Entergy New Orleans in terms of dealing with the climate crisis.”

In New Orleans, the storm has also called into question the usefulness of the New Orleans Power Station — a controversial $210 million gas plant in eastern New Orleans that the City Council approved in 2018. (The actual cost to customers over time has been estimated at closer to $650 million, after debt financing and company profits are taken into account.) The Lens later revealed that an Entergy subcontractor hired actors to pose as supporters of the plant at council meetings.

Storm resilience was never the primary justification for the plant. Entergy originally argued it was needed to fill an anticipated future energy supply shortage. But as questions emerged over whether the company was overestimating the potential shortage, the company started to emphasize the plant’s benefits for resiliency and storm restoration. 

During the Ida recovery, however, the plant didn’t prove to be the vital resource that Entergy described as it was selling the plant to the City Council and public. And some say the storm revealed that the plant will likely never work that way.

“It was clear it was just a selling point,” Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, told The Lens. 

The New Orleans City Council, the regulator of Entergy New Orleans, will consider a slate of accountability measures related to the storm at a Wednesday utility committee meeting. Those measures include an investigation into Entergy New Orleans’ actions surrounding Hurricane Ida and an overall management audit of the company.

The council will also consider issuing a report to explore alternatives to Entergy New Orleans’ monopoly control over the city’s electric service. Those alternatives include the creation of a city-owned utility, splitting the Entergy New Orleans subsidiary from the parent Entergy company or selling Entergy New Orleans to another entity. 

In a statement on Tuesday, Entergy New Orleans said it would work with the council to explore those options, and indicated that its preference would be to merge with another Entergy subsidiary, Entergy Louisiana. In that option, regulatory power would shift from the City Council to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, a state body that regulates power utilities in most of the rest of Louisiana.

The council will also consider a resolution asking state and federal regulators to investigate the company’s maintenance of the portion of the transmission grid that serves New Orleans. 

A group of customers, meanwhile, has filed a class-action lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court alleging the company failed to adequately maintain and inspect the grid. And the chairman of the Louisiana Public Service Commission has publicly questioned whether Entergy has done enough to harden the grid. 

“I think what’s incredible is the power of so many people in the last two weeks suddenly saying we have to do something different,” Burke said. “We are in a struggle right now, where the traditional business model of a utility is not what is going to serve the most people in the climate we are rapidly experiencing. And by that I mean the business model that is based on growth and capital expansion and shareholder returns.”

Entergy declined multiple interview requests for this story. 

Long standing problems with the grid

The electric grid is broadly made up of two parts — the transmission system, which transports bulk electricity long distances, and the local distribution system, which brings that electricity directly to individual homes and businesses. New Orleans faced catastrophic failures in both systems.

The citywide outage began with the collapse of all eight transmission lines that bring power from a multistate power grid into New Orleans — a rare occurrence that left the city completely disconnected from outside power. 

One of the eight lines was cut off when a large transmission tower in Avondale fell. Photos and video of the collapsed pile of rusted metal sparked immediate questions over the company’s grid maintenance. Along the other seven transmission lines, 12 of 1,500 total towers and poles were damaged, according to Entergy spokesperson Lee Sabatini. 

While Entergy officials originally emphasized the transmission damage as the central problem, recent statements from Entergy indicate that the drawn-out restoration period was primarily due to extensive damage to New Orleans’ local distribution poles, wires, transformers and other equipment.

“Within a few days after Ida struck, it was damage to distribution facilities, not transmission facilities, that limited our ability to restore service,” Sabatini said in an emailed statement. “The damage to the distribution system was extensive and more than double any previous storm.” 

For years, regulators and customers have accused Entergy of failing to maintain an adequate grid. Recently, in 2019, the New Orleans City Council fined the company $1 million over its neglect of the local distribution system. 

A council review discovered that the company cut millions of dollars in distribution maintenance, a divestment that was shortly followed by a spike in outages and equipment failures in the city. The review found that over a year-long period beginning in 2016, there were 2,599 power outages in New Orleans, primarily due to equipment failure. Worse yet, the majority of those outages were happening on fair weather days. 

During that review, testimony from Entergy’s director of grid operations for Louisiana revealed that the transmission system’s performance had also been “inconsistent,” and that there had been a recent “decline in transmission reliability performance” that failed to meet the company’s own standards. 

“It’s long term neglect,” Harden said. “It’s not like we had this wonderfully efficient, effective system for delivering energy service [before Hurricane Ida].”

NOPS, transmission and distribution

When Ida cut New Orleans off from the transmission grid, it created the exact situation that Entergy said made the New Orleans Power Station, or NOPS, so valuable to the city in the wake of a storm. The gas plant is supposed to have “black-start” capability, meaning that it can power up on its own without a connection to external power, creating a lifeline to the city as crews work to restore the transmission lines.

The council resolution that approved NOPS said that Entergy New Orleans “states that it is undisputed that a unit with black-start capability could prove vital if the grid goes totally dark.”

But the plant’s black-start capability wasn’t used after Ida. NOPS remained off and the city remained completely devoid of electricity for more than two days until the company was able to restore the first transmission line coming from Slidell. 

Even after the first transmission line was restored and it was clear that NOPS’ black-start capability wouldn’t be used, Entergy officials continued to emphasize the importance of the plant’s black-start capability. 

“Because of the New Orleans Power Station, we were able to bring power back to the city,” Entergy New Orleans CEO Deanna Rodriguez said on a Sept. 1 press call. “Hurricane support is one of the major benefits, meaning it can generate power locally in New Orleans even when transmission lines, which is what happened here, were impacted by a major storm. The unit has the unique ability to start itself… That was one of the reasons we were able to get power up back into the city in about three days. Otherwise, it would have taken much, much longer.”

It wasn’t until reporters questioned Rodriguez that officials clarified that the plant’s black-start capability hadn’t been used, and that the plant actually played a much different role in the storm restoration process. 

Entergy Louisiana CEO Phillip May explained that the transmission line had been reconnected through NOPS, which was acting like a switching station — a piece of transmission infrastructure that lowers the voltage of electricity coming from the transmission system so it can be used on the distribution system.

“You basically had the power plant working as a switching station to bring down the voltage from the transmission line in Slidell,” Harden said. “That’s a $650 million switching station, which is probably the most expensive one on planet earth.”

May said the plant’s generation capacity also provided redundancy in the system. He described the delicate process of restoring power to a completely blacked-out grid, saying that if Entergy were relying on the transmission line alone, any blips in the system could cause the entire grid to go down again and force the company to start the restoration process all over again. He compared it to having a spare tire.

“Would you drive your car without a spare? Well yeah you can absolutely do that, and that’s fine, but if we know we’re going to be driving over some very challenging roads with challenging debris on the road and so forth, you might want to have a spare.”

Despite those explanations, the City Council’s utility committee chair, Helena Moreno, told The Lens that she still isn’t entirely clear on how NOPS was 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.”

Sabatini said that although the transmission fix was the right choice after Ida, restoring power through NOPS was still a viable option for future storms. Some observers, however, say that Ida illustrated exactly why the plant will likely never be used as it was originally described. 

To start, NOPS can only generate enough electricity to meet roughly 10 percent of the city’s normal demand. Even if the company were able to connect the much bigger Ninemile 6 plant in Jefferson Parish, the power generation would still be inadequate to meet New Orleans’ usual demand. That means that the full restoration of power to the city will ultimately hinge on reconnecting to the transmission grid.

On top of that, Entergy now claims that the biggest obstacle to restoring power after Ida wasn’t the availability of electricity — whether through NOPS or the transmission grid. Rather, the main issue was the inability to deliver that electricity to customers because of massive damage to the local distribution system. 

Sabatini said that one reason NOPS’ black-start capability wasn’t used in the immediate aftermath of the storm was that it wasn’t clear whether there were enough stable distribution lines to receive even the limited amount of power produced by NOPS. 

“We needed to make sure there was enough load (meaning customers able to take power) and working distribution lines to move power generated by NOPS to customers. To start NOPS without ensuring that its power could be delivered safely would have been reckless, and pointless if no load (again—meaning our customers) was available to take power from the unit.”

Sabatini said that even after the first transmission line was restored, the distribution system was still too damaged to receive the New Orleans Power Station’s maximum output.

“Within a few days after the storm, there was more electricity able to be delivered to the area via transmission lines than that local distribution system could receive,” Sabatini said. 

Opponents of the gas plant made this exact point while trying to convince the council to reject NOPS — that a weather event that brought down all transmission lines would be so catastrophic to the distribution system that even if the plant could start up on its own, it would have nowhere to send that electricity.

In a 2018 testimony to the council, Burke argued that a transmission-wrecking storm “would have such a catastrophic impact on our already fragile distribution system that a 120 megawatt power plant stationed on the far eastern side of the city, if it were miraculously the only thing spared by such a storm, would be of very little help.”

No cheap option

In 2020, a series of hurricanes — including Laura, Delta and Zeta — caused over $2 billion in damage to Louisiana’s electric grid, costs that will likely be covered by customers through their monthly bills. Hurricane Ida, one of the most damaging hurricanes to ever hit the state, promises to add even more to that debt.

The back to back years of excessive storm damage could be a sign of what’s to come with the worsening effects of climate change. And some regulators are wondering if there is any way to try and spend the money to strengthen the grid before a storm hits, rather than just spending the money to rebuild after the fact. 

“What we know is that Entergy reports spending in the hundreds of millions toward their transmission and distribution grid each year,” Louisiana Public Service Commission Chairman Craig Greene told The Lens in an emailed statement. “What we also know is that the grid did not stand up to two unprecedented storms in Hurricanes Laura in 2020 and Ida in 2021.  What we need to find out now is: (1) Can anything stand up to such ferocious storms? (2) How much does that cost? and (3) should any of those hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent toward already achieving that?”

Advocates say that there are clear steps that Entergy can take to prepare for the increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes. 

One key to resilience, according to some advocates, will be distributed energy resources, like solar plus battery storage, that can provide limited levels of electricity throughout the city even while the grid is completely dark. Burke said that Entergy and the city should work together to build these resources at libraries, city-owned recreation facilities and other community hubs. 

“What that gives you is breathing room,” Burke said.

The distributed solar plus battery resources could provide vital cooling stations, food provision and service centers that residents could access immediately after a storm passes as Entergy works to restore the grid, Burke argued. Solar panels held up well against Hurricane Ida, according to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.

Burke, Harden and other consumer advocates made that same argument years ago during the NOPS debate. The idea was never taken seriously by Entergy or the council’s long-time utility consultants, NOPS opponents argued. 

One of those consultants, however, now appears to be supportive of the idea. Clint Vince, the city’s lead utility advisor, told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate earlier this month that distributed solar plus battery storage is the right way forward to address future blackouts. Vince declined an interview for this story. 

“I wish the City Council’s well paid advisors had heard us beginning in 2015 when we were saying exactly that, and not insisted that Entergy’s solution was the only one,” Burke said.

The company could also work to strengthen the grid by building transmission towers that can withstand higher winds and installing distribution wires underground, according to some industry experts. 

A recent white paper on Ida’s destruction released by McCullough Research, an energy consulting firm, suggests Entergy and its regulators should work to replace aging grid equipment sooner, rather than trying to squeeze extra years out of the equipment until it fails completely.

“Many utilities wait until older equipment is destroyed rather than preemptively replacing equipment,” the paper said. “There are understandable regulatory reasons for doing so: it is easier to recover the cost of storm damage than it is to argue for early retirement of existing assets. Colloquially, it is often better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission, but this does not produce optimal results for either the utility or its customers.”

The regulatory structure should be changed, the paper argued, so that the company is incentivized to replace aging equipment before it fails.

But while all of these options — transmission hardening, underground wires and distributed generation — are part of a potential solution, none of them are cheap. 

“The difficulty is how expensive it is,” Burke said. “And there’s a long standing tension between wanting 100 percent reliability and 100 percent resilience and the cost to ratepayers.”

Many Entergy customers already struggle to pay their bills as it is, Burke said, making it difficult to ask customers to pay more, no matter how vital the investment.

But Burke pointed out that the alternative isn’t free. If the money isn’t spent to harden the system before a storm hits, customers will be stuck paying for the additional damage caused by a lack of proactive planning. And without proactive planning, outages are likely to be longer, bringing a host of social costs like deaths, interruptions to daily life, the costs of evacuating and lost business. 

“Resilience planning is necessary,” Burke said. “Otherwise you get disaster building, which is expensive.”

She argued that it’s not only more expensive to rebuild after a storm due to disaster contracting, but the urgency of the restoration means that the focus will be on building back quickly, rather than building back better. 

“Their goal is to slap it together the best you can,” Burke said. “But what are we paying for then?”

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...