It’s been more than three weeks since Hurricane Ida took out all power in New Orleans and left much of the city in the dark for more than a week. And since then, questions have swirled among residents and officials about the resilience of the city’s energy system and the performance of the city’s monopoly electric utility Entergy New Orleans.
At a busy Wednesday meeting, the City Council’s utility committee advanced several measures that seek to answer those questions. All of them must still go before the full council for a final vote.
Committee members voted in favor of launching an investigation into the Ida outages, a general management audit of Entergy New Orleans and a study exploring alternatives to Entergy New Orleans’ monopoly utility ownership. Two other measures request state and federal regulators conduct their own investigations into failures in the regional transmission grid that New Orleans relies on.
The committee also advanced a resolution to delay the implementation of a $25 a year increase to New Orleans electric bills that the company was seeking prior to Hurricane Ida.
Hurricane Ida dealt massive damage to New Orleans’ electric grid. The citywide outage began when the storm knocked out all eight regional transmission lines coming into the city. The local distribution system, meanwhile, sustained massive damage as well, twice as much as in any previous storm, according to Entergy officials.
For years, residents and regulators have accused Entergy of failing to adequately invest in the region’s electric grid and plan for an era in which climate change makes storms more frequent and severe. For some, Ida was further proof that the company isn’t doing enough.
The storm has also brought into question the usefulness of the New Orleans Power Station, a gas plant in eastern New Orleans that went into operation last year.
One of the selling points of the plant is that it would be vital to power restoration in a scenario where a storm knocks out all transmission lines coming into the city. That’s exactly what happened during Hurricane Ida, but the plant wasn’t used as described. And the company’s explanation for why it wasn’t used as described raised doubts about whether the plant’s promised benefits will ever materialize.
The item on Wednesday’s agenda that perhaps received the most attention was the proposed study on utility ownership. In her opening remarks on Wednesday, Councilwoman and utility chair Helena Moreno emphasized that the study was a very initial step that was only intended to lay out the city’s options.
“This is not a push to municipalize,” she said. “This is not a push to have a new company come in. This is not a push to have a nonprofit run the utility. We haven’t done the study. We don’t know what will or will not work. But the people of this city that have been asking these questions about the feasibility of these options should have an answer.”
Moreno accused Entergy executives present at Wednesday’s meeting of using the utility ownership study as an opportunity to try and change regulators.
“Your PR campaign strategy around today’s meeting never centered around the very serious matters on the agenda, like what happened during Ida,” she said. “Entergy’s PR planning around this meeting was talking about an ownership study.”
On Tuesday, Entergy sent out a press release that laid out several options for how New Orleans utility ownership structure could change. The company indicated that its preferred choice was to merge with Entergy Louisiana and to transfer regulation of the company from the New Orleans City Council to the Louisiana Public Service Commission.
“What Big Entergy presumably wanted to talk about with this study was making a case to change the regulators for Entergy New Orleans,” Moreno said.
Moreno had some additional insight into Entergy’s PR strategy because the company sent her its PR strategy surrounding Wednesday’s meeting, presumably by accident. One of the talking points was that a change to the city’s utility ownership could force Entergy Corporation to consider moving its headquarters out of New Orleans. That’s caused some to worry about the economic consequences of New Orleans losing its only Fortune 500 company.
Moreno chastised Entergy New Orleans on Wednesday for responding to the council’s accountability measures “with threats and PR spins.”
“Please stop acting like you’re the victim,” she said. “All that I’ve ever wanted from this company, serving as chair of this utility committee, is for you all to do your job.”
Entergy New Orleans executives also bumped heads with the council when they left the building after a short opening presentation, before any public comment had been heard and before the council had considered any of the motions and resolutions on Wednesday’s agenda.
The council ended up calling Entergy CEO Deanna Rodriguez and asking her to return to the meeting. Rodriguez returned about half an hour later. Rodriguez told the council that she had continued to watch the meeting via livestream.
“I’m new in this role,” she said. “I did not know I was expected to stay. I’m happy to be here.”