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Slow return of power raises questions about a New Orleans plant that was supposed to deliver electricity after hurricanes

Calls for an investigation of Entergy's power outages follow a wave of complaints about the company.

In the summer of 2017, facing local resistance to its plan to build a natural gas-powered power plant in an economically struggling and mostly nonwhite section of New Orleans, the electric company Entergy argued that a new station would come in handy if a storm knocked out transmission lines feeding the city.

Something similar had happened in 2008, when Hurricane Gustav left a large portion of the city without power. Entergy was criticized for its handling of that storm. But if such a storm hit again, officials said in a July 2017 filing with city regulators, the company would be able to fire up the new plant on its own — known as a “black start” — and deliver electricity into the city.

“This could be a tremendous benefit if New Orleans is electrically ‘islanded’ from the rest of the interconnected transmission grid, as it was after Hurricane Gustav,” they wrote.

The plant was built, and began operating in May 2020. But when Hurricane Ida knocked out Entergy’s transmission lines this week, it went idle.

The $210 million plant remained out of operation for more than two days after Ida passed over New Orleans as a Category 4 hurricane, knocking out all eight of Entergy’s transmission lines into the city and leaving thousands without electricity in the Louisiana heat. On Wednesday, the plant returned to life, supplying power to a small section of the New Orleans East area, but it wasn’t clear when the rest of the city of 383,000 would get power back.

The outage has raised questions about Entergy’s ability to stand by those 2017 assurances and protect its plants, lines and towers from future storms.

“I’m very happy to have power but I’m very disappointed in Entergy for not using the plant like it was supposedly built for,” said Dawn Hebert, a New Orleans East community advocate whose power flickered on around 1:20 a.m. Wednesday. “Those of us that fought against this plant were told it was built to power up New Orleans in instances such as a hurricane that we just went through. If that is the case, why has it taken days for this plant to turn on power for only a section of New Orleans East?"

The outages follow a wave of complaints about Entergy this year that led to a City Council decision to launch an audit of the company. The move was in response to outages during Mardi Gras in February and spikes in winter bills.

“​​All the billions sent to save the levees after Hurricane Katrina is just for naught because now we’re still at home, no commerce, no tourism, no nothing, because of Entergy,” said Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and a resident of New Orleans East. “It’s time for the city of New Orleans and other regulators to take a hard look at what’s going on with Entergy.”

The City Council, which regulates Entergy’s New Orleans operations, has sanctioned the company in the past, including a $5 million fine in 2018 for hiring actors to pose as proponents of the new plant at a public hearing, and a $1 million fine in 2019 for failing to maintain poles and lines.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who as a member of the council in 2018 voted to approve the new power plant, avoided criticism of Entergy when asked about the company’s early promises.

“I can think through what they said back then, but I have to deal with what's before me right now,” she told reporters Tuesday. “And what's before me right now is ensuring that Entergy is absolutely held accountable every step of the way, but to power restoration in the city of New Orleans.”

Councilmember Joe Giarrusso, who sits on the Utility, Cable, Telecommunications and Technology Committee, said that he expected the council to launch an investigation into this week’s power failure.

“My first objective is to get power back on in the city,” he said. “Then the next series of questions are, if we were supposed to have black-start capability in the city of New Orleans, why isn’t this a resource, and at the same time, what happened with the eight lines into the city?”

During the storm, an Entergy transmission tower buckled under high winds and toppled into the Mississippi River near Avondale, a few miles west of New Orleans.

The transmission lines “clearly were insufficiently reliable, insufficiently hardened and insufficiently prepared for an extreme event,” said Andrew Tuozzolo, the chief of staff for Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who heads the utilities committee.

Entergy put out a statement Wednesday morning saying that the new power plant start-up offered “a sign of hope” but cautioned that it is only an early step as it works to repair transmission lines that feed into the New Orleans area.

“While initial service can be provided to some customers, the full restoration will still take time given the significant damage across the region,” the company said.

In a follow-up email, spokesman Neal Kirby said Entergy had restored power to about 3,500 customers in New Orleans East, a number he said would gradually increase. The new plant, along with another in nearby Jefferson Parish, “will be extremely valuable in providing power to our customers,” he said.

Louisiana has been pummeled by several hurricanes over the last few years, including Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that knocked out all nine Entergy transmission lines that fed Lake Charles, about 200 miles west of New Orleans. With each storm, restoration costs soar into the billions, with customers covering much of the costs.

Each hurricane also renews calls to find new ways to produce and distribute energy in the face of climate change, which experts say is leading to more frequent and more devastating storms. In New Orleans, advocates have tried to push Entergy to invest more in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and technologies that provide electricity to the area where it is produced.

Those concerns, along with worries about pollution in residential neighborhoods, fueled resistance to Entergy’s plan to build the new natural gas-powered plant in New Orleans East. Even after the company admitted to playing a role in the hiring of actors to support the project at public meetings, the council approved the plant. Groups that opposed the plan sued, and the case made it to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which let stand a lower court's decision upholding the council's vote.

“​​Over and over we have tried to say we need not only climate action for renewables, but also we need to be adaptive to what is coming, because the traditional system to move power isn’t going to be able to help us weather these storms,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy. “We’ve been ignored by utilities and regulators, and we are concerned that now, yet again, we will have this system rebuilt the same way we’ve done it and it will do us no good the next time.”

In addition to the new gas-fired plant, Entergy has built a small solar plant in New Orleans East; it went online last fall.

Julie McNamara, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that along with adapting the power grid to withstand the effects of climate change, cities like New Orleans have to make sure communities are equipped to keep people safe during power outages, including community centers with backup power using solar and battery storage.

“People who don’t have backup generators and are now facing long-lasting power outages, how are they going to cope with the extreme heat, the Covid risk, the lack of water and sewer?” she said. “This is a public health crisis.”

Giarrusso, the councilmember, said he hoped the Ida power outages would prompt New Orleans to push Entergy to change the way it delivers power to the city.

“This is now an inflection point to say that we know there is a climate crisis and we know these storms are increasing, so how are we going to handle that, and what do we do to make sure that everything is hardened within reason, and what can we do to tap into federal resources to help solve that? But this is not a simple fix.”

CORRECTION (Sept. 7, 2021, 12:42 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court regarding a proposed power plant. The court declined to take up an appeal of a lower court's decision; it did not uphold a vote by the New Orleans City Council.