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

Electric service reliability was significantly down in New Orleans this year even before Hurricane Ida caused one the city’s most severe power outages in recent memory, according to a new report the company submitted to the City Council this week.

The report shows that in the first six months of 2021, New Orleans saw tens of thousands of outages above what the city experienced in the first half of any year going back to 2018. (The report doesn’t show data for earlier years.)

The reason for the rise in outages, according to the report, is more extreme weather.

“This increase in customer interruptions is due to adverse weather conditions experienced in 2021 with much higher-than-normal rainfall totals,” Entergy’s report said. “The additional precipitation was caused by an increased number of storms in the metropolitan area, which also caused the noticed increase in lightning strike customer interruptions.”

The report notes that according to the National Weather Service, New Orleans saw more than 50 percent more rain in the first half of 2021 than the average amount of rain during the same six month period over the last 10 years. 

The council began requiring Entergy to submit these reliability reports in 2017 after launching an investigation into the city’s increasingly frequent power outages. The investigation found that the system’s reliability began to fall shortly after 2015, when Entergy pulled millions of dollars from funds dedicated to maintaining and improving the grid.

The council ended up fining the company $1 million in October 2019 for the reliability failures. The company challenged the fine in court, and has so far withheld the money pending the resolution of that case. Along with the regular reliability reports, Entergy was also forced to submit a reliability improvement plan to the council and provide regular updates on its progress.

After 2017, Entergy data indicates the company made big strides towards creating a more reliable system. But after three years of improvement, the new Entergy report indicates the company’s reliability might slip backwards in 2021.

Entergy did not respond to questions for this story. A spokesperson for Councilwoman and utility committee Chair Helena Moreno said she was unavailable for an interview because she was traveling back from Washington D.C., where she met with lawmakers about securing federal funding to invest in the state’s energy grid.

The new Entergy report breaks the numbers down based on whether the outage occurred on the distribution system — the local poles and wires that bring electricity to individual homes and businesses — or the transmission system — which brings in bulk electricity from around the region. 

The majority of New Orleans outages happen on the distribution system. According to the report, there were just under 140,000 distribution outages in the first six months of 2021, 29 percent higher than the first six months of 2020, and 27 percent higher than the average number of outages seen between 2018 and 2020. 

The number of outages refers to the number of customers affected. The report notes that the distribution outage numbers don’t include an April outage in the Central Business District caused by an equipment fire because the “network that serves the Central Business District does not currently allow outages on the network to be captured in the automated reporting.”

The primary causes of the distribution outages were “lightning, scheduled interruptions, emergency switching, foreign objects, and crossarm failures,” the report said. 

Meanwhile, the city experienced roughly 40,000 outages on the transmission grid — 130 percent higher than in the first six months of 2020 and 108 percent higher than the three-year average. 

It appears the central cause of the increase in transmission outages was the February winter storm that led to blackouts throughout the region. The storm increased electricity demand above what’s normally expected while also taking some power plants offline. The imbalance threatened to create catastrophic failure on the grid.

To avoid that failure, Entergy, like other utilities in the region, intentionally disconnected some customers to avoid the catastrophic supply-demand imbalance. In New Orleans, 26,000 customers were disconnected. It was later revealed that the company shut off power to three times as many customers as they had to, sparking the council to launch another investigation into the company, which is still ongoing. 

Logan Burke, the executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, told The Lens that there are some potential issues in the data.

She pointed out that the data explicitly does not include all outages. The report notes that the reported outages don’t include those “due to Major Events, Government Mandates, Customer Equipment, Late Calls, and Mismatched Customers.”

She said it was unclear how the overall reliability picture would look if those numbers were included. And she said that Entergy’s most recent filing, unlike previous reliability reports, doesn’t appear to include the granular, daily data that has allowed the public to see whether outages occurred on sunny days or bad weather days. 

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...