In response to recent complaints of unusually high bills, Entergy New Orleans officials defended the company’s billing accuracy to the New Orleans City Council’s utility committee on Monday. The company also outlined improvements it made since it accidentally shut off power to thousands of residents on Mardi Gras day 2021.
Entergy was supposed to provide a presentation “on recent reports of increases in customer bills,” according to the meeting agenda. Recent news reports and social media accounts have highlighted examples of sky-high bills, sometimes $1,000 higher than usual.
But the company’s representatives didn’t give much detail. In fact, the presentation did not address whether customers’ bills are actually rising on average, or what the causes might be.
“We do have a customer bill of rights that doesn’t allow us to talk about too much detail about customer private information,” Entergy New Orleans Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Courtney Nicholson said.
A customer bill of rights, which appears in the New Orleans City Code, does indeed protect customer billing and consumption information from public disclosure. But typically, such restrictions are meant to protect personally identifiable, rather than citywide, information on bills and usage. Entergy officials have previously discussed aggregate gas and electric usage in public meetings.
Instead, company employees mainly spoke about bill accuracy rates and the steps they have taken to improve customer service. Nicholson started by saying that “recent reports” of billing problems were oversimplified.
“These issues are sometimes much more nuanced than they appear when you just see the complaint by itself,” she said. “In some cases they weren’t actually billing errors.”
According to the presentation, Entergy New Orleans boasts a 99.1 percent accuracy rate on bills. Leslie Dennis, who works in Entergy’s billing department, said that the company would try to get that number even higher by expanding auditing and improving staff training.
“We recognize we may have some human performance errors,” Dennis said.
But the presentation stopped short of explaining, beyond the issue of accuracy, whether customer bills are actually rising. Sandra Diggs-Miller, Entergy New Orleans’ vice president of customer service, implied that recent customer complaints about high bills have more to do with rising expectations, rather than rising bills.
“We recognize that our customers’ expectations are evolving at a pace that admittedly outpaces the level of engagement we’re providing as a company. The billing complaints we’ve seen are certainly a byproduct of that.”
Diggs-Miller highlighted the company’s efforts to improve customer service. She pointed out that former Entergy New Orleans CEO David Ellis left that post to become the first ever “chief customer officer” for Entergy Corp. She said the newly created division was already working to make improvements, including hiring more agents to staff the company’s call centers.
Entergy better prepared for a “load shed” event
Also on Monday, the company and council utility advisers discussed what went wrong during Mardi Gras 2021, when the company unnecessarily cut power to thousands of New Orleans residents.
The issue began with a winter storm, which caused energy demand to skyrocket throughout the region. That caused a relatively unordinary problem: there wasn’t enough electricity supply to meet all the demand.
That posed a potentially catastrophic outcome. When electric customers try to use more power than is available on the grid, it can cause widespread equipment failures that take a lot of time and money to repair. To avoid that, utilities are supposed to execute “load sheds,” where the company purposely disconnects customers from the grid to keep demand from exceeding the supply.
On the night of Mardi Gras 2021, the regional grid faced this exact problem. The regional grid operator — the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO — told its members, including Entergy New Orleans, to start shedding load to avoid the demand-supply imbalance.
Entergy New Orleans was specifically instructed to shed 26 megawatts of demand. Instead, it accidentally shed four times that amount. The company ended up cutting power to 25,000 customers, 18,000 more than necessary, according to the council’s utility advisors.
The company also had several communications failures surrounding the event, the council’s utility consultants said on Monday. To start, the company failed to inform any of those customers in a timely fashion that their power was going out, why it was being shut off or when they could expect to get power back.
“This becomes a serious event because, as the council well knows, when you’re dealing with vulnerable customers, the elderly or people on medical apparatus, not to have forewarning of an event like this can have really serious, unacceptable consequences,” Clint Vince, one of the council’s utility consultants, said on Monday.
Councilwoman Helena Moreno noted that with the lack of customer communications, it fell to council members to release whatever partial information they had on social media.
Moreno noted that another problem with the load shed was that Entergy shut off power to a key Sewerage and Water Board facility.
“Neither had been talking to each other,” Moreno said. “I had to make the connection to bring the two together.”
Lastly, Moreno noted that when it was revealed to the council that the company had shut off four times as much power as necessary, then-CEO David Ellis didn’t even know about it.
“The CEO himself had not been aware of just how severe this situation was, this mistake had been,” Moreno said.
Brian Guillot, an attorney for Entergy, said that while there were a number of things the company was improving in response, the various issues all came down to a common cause: Load shed events are rare, and the company was out of practice.
“We can’t even pinpoint the last date, but it’s been over 20 years since the last load shed event occurred on the Entergy system. So there’s not a lot of muscle memory related to these load shed events.”
Guillot shared a long list of things the company is now doing to improve its load shed preparation, including accurately calibrating equipment and updating the list of feeders that will be prioritized for shut-offs if it happens again in order to avoid cutting power to critical infrastructure.
He said that many of those measures are directly aligned with the nine recommendations the council’s consultants came up with after investigating the load shed event. He said that the company was close to achieving all of those recommendations.
“I’d guess we’re about 80 percent there, 90 percent there. So we’re looking forward to working with the advisors on the incremental 10 percent and get that done as well.”
Councilman J.P. Morrell, who chairs the utility committee, said that although those were good steps, the company should have already been prepared last year, noting that these issues have hit other regions across the country as climate change intensifies.
“This has been an ongoing issue across the country with climate change,” he said. “So though this load shed issue is new to our region, it’s not new to the country. It’s something that’s been increasingly happening.”
“It’s frustrating for us to be on the backend fixing problems that are foreseeable,” Morrell said. “With climate change it was foreseeable that we would have a load shed event.”
Also on Monday, the committee advanced a resolution to allow the company to increase its outstanding debt capacity from $890 million to $1.24 billion. According to an application for the increase filed with the council last year, much of that will be used to “support restoration costs necessitated by significant and costly damage to their public utility systems from the effects of Hurricane Ida.”
Nicholson called the change “a pretty routine matter,” and it was supported by the council’s utility consultants. It was approved with little debate and is expected to get approval from the full council on Thursday through the council’s consent agenda.