Amid citywide complaints of spiking power bills, a New Orleans City Council committee on Tuesday voted to approve a proposed moratorium on electricity and gas utility shutdowns due to nonpayment until Nov. 1, which Entergy New Orleans, the city’s gas and electric utility, had already agreed to honor.
“It is a public health issue where we cannot have people in this heat, in their homes, expiring because it’s too hot to live,” Councilman-at-large JP Morrell said. “So we stepped in as a council to have this moratorium as a stopgap measure – it is not a solution.”
The council, which has regulatory authority over Entergy New Orleans, has taken several similar votes over the past few years. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the company voluntarily implemented an informal moratorium, but weeks before it had planned to lift it, council members voted to extend it several months. The council later imposed another moratorium last year in response to reports of higher-than-normal bills.
Morrell, chair of the Utility, Cable, Telecommunications and Technology Committee, and Council President Helena Moreno sent a letter to Entergy New Orleans on Monday, informing the company that the committee would address the moratorium at its Tuesday meeting. Leadership at the utility then expressed their support for the measure.
Ratepayers have faced what they’ve described as skyrocketing bills in recent weeks – as temperatures have remained persistently high, and as the price of natural gas has surged, due in part to increased demand in Europe after Russia invaded Ukraine. 60% of Entergy’s energy portfolio is sourced from natural gas.
Deanna Rodriguez, CEO of Entergy New Orleans, said Tuesday that the company will implement the council’s moratorium, as proposed.
Entergy Corp., the New Orleans’ subsidiary’s parent company, is also pledging $10 million to assist low-income ratepayers, she said. Rodriguez, when pressed by Moreono, was not able to specify how many New Orleans residents are likely to benefit from the initiative.
“We will also waive late fees for low-income customers,” Rodriguez said. “We will refund any late fees paid by customers going back to June of 2022, and we will waive credit card fees for all of those customers who prefer to pay their bills by credit card.”
While the moratorium is a positive, if short-term, development, it’s “plain disingenuous” of the company to present itself as a “helpless victim” subject to the vicissitudes of the methane market, Jesse George New Orleans policy director for the consumer advocacy group Alliance for Affordable Energy, said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Entergy has “worked actively to keep us dependent on expensive fossil-fuel infrastructure, even going so far as to hire actors to appear before this body to approve the New Orleans power station out on New Orleans East, which is a methane-fired power plant,” George said, referring to the astroturfing scandal that rocked the company back in 2018.
Morrell also criticized the company for the way it’s handled its Grand Gulf nuclear plant, a source of power that could help shield ratepayers from the volatile natural gas market. But the plant has faced frequent reliability issues over the years and has spent nearly half of the past year either operating below full capacity or shut down entirely, according to records from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Entergy owns a 90% stake in the plant while another utility, Cooperative Energy, owns 10%. The plant is scheduled to go offline for approximately two months each year for refueling.
However, the plant already went offline in the spring for its 2022 refueling, and it has recently been shut down again, this time reportedly due to a defective part. NRC records show that after operating below full capacity for part of the month, it has been entirely offline since July 13. There’s no indication of when the current outage will end, and ratepayers will likely see another spike in their bills in September because there’s a two-month lag between when Grand Gulf suffers an issue and when that problem hits people’s bills, he said.
“It is beyond my understanding and it is offensive to me, for the ratepayers of the city to own part of something that doesn’t work,” he said. “And that when it doesn’t work. ratepayers take it on the chin until it gets to work,” Morrell said, adding that is why the council is already engaged in litigation with Entergy regarding Grand Gulf, and will likely be involved in even more litigation over the plant.
Grand Gulf’s planned and unplanned outages have cost New Orleans residents millions of dollars, according to figures Entergy has provided the City Council. Entergy recently offered regulators $588 million to settle allegations related to its operations at Grand Gulf.
While it’s helpful that Entergy has stepped forward to help mitigate fees for some customers, that’s also simply a stopgap measure, Morrell said. The council needs to get a better understanding of the universe of increasing rates.
“There has to be a complete review of all the bills that are coming in, why these costs are spiraling at this level,” he said, adding that the council’s utility advisers have been tasked with to undertake that review.
“You cannot continue to have rates spiral upwards beyond, first off, beyond what is even reasonable to a point where people cannot simply afford to have energy in their homes. Our job as regulators is to control the market in a way that makes the market work for people.”
The council will still have to vote to approve the moratorium at an upcoming full meeting for it to take legal effect. That appears very likely since the resolution is sponsored by all seven council members and Entergy has agreed to it. The next full council meeting is scheduled for Aug. 4.