Entergy’s post-Ida restoration efforts prove success of resiliency investments

Published on October 14, 2021 by Kim Riley

Credit: Entergy

Massive restoration efforts by Entergy Corp. continue as the New Orleans-headquartered power company repairs, rebuilds and strengthens its electric system in hard-hit coastal communities devastated by Hurricane Ida, a situation that could have been even worse were it not for major investments Entergy has already made to harden its system.

“Over the past five years, Entergy’s operating companies have invested $9.5 billion in transmission and distribution assets that met or exceeded then-current resiliency standards,” said Willie Wilson, vice president of operations and Storm Incident Commander at Entergy, a Fortune 500 integrated energy company that delivers electricity to 3 million utility customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

“Ida demonstrated the resiliency benefits of these investments,” Wilson told Daily Energy Insider. “Directly because of our investments in hardening, we were able to complete fast repairs to the transmission system rather than lengthy and costly rebuilds.”

Faster restoration has been paramount for Entergy following the powerfully destructive storm that made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, Wilson said, noting that Ida resulted in 948,000 power outages to Entergy customers at its peak. The storm hit some areas of Louisiana with winds exceeding 170 mph, capable of snapping power poles and trees like they were toothpicks. 

“With strong Category 4 strength winds upon landfall and sustained hurricane strength winds through New Orleans and beyond, Ida caused substantially more distribution pole damage than previous storms,” said Wilson.

Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents all of the nation’s investor-owned utilities, said that in his 12 years with EEI, Hurricane Ida was “the most impactful storm from an infrastructure perspective that I have ever seen,” hitting the most populous part of the state, including areas where even on blue sky days it is hard to get around because it’s marsh and bayou.

“It’s pertinent to understand the severity of Hurricane Ida and the devastation that it wrought,” said Aaronson. “Given the nature of destruction, and that it is a complicated part of the state to get around, for Entergy to have restored power as quickly as they did was impressive.”

Part of the company’s challenge was the state’s exceptionally wet season in the months leading up to Ida that increased the potential for trees to be blown down and damage utilities in the process, according to Joe Basciani, director of meteorology operations at StormGeo Inc., which among its services provides customers with early forecasting and alerts for hurricanes.

In fact, Ida was typical of the category 4 or 5 major “strongest-of-the-season” hurricanes that can be expected to impact the continental United States most years over the next 10 years, Basciani said.

“It’s important to remember that while Hurricanes are the most visible face of the effects that a changing climate could have on utilities, other events such as derechos, tornadic outbreaks and winter storms can have crippling effects on local and regional generation, transmission and distribution networks,” Basciani wrote Daily Energy Insider in an email. “All of these types of events have the potential to become more frequent and intense over the next decade, and each can present their own unique challenges for how utilities will need to be prepared to respond.”

Mutual assistance

Response occurs in three phases, according to EEI’s Aaronson: access the impacted area, assess the nature of the damage, and then ultimately begin the restoration process. 

In the case of Ida, Entergy’s access was hindered and complicated because of the nature of the storm, which in some places effectively produced winds that reached tornado status, Aaronson said, creating widespread infrastructure damage that extended beyond electricity. 

“The complications of simply accessing the impacted area can’t be overstated,” Aaronson said. “Assessment couldn’t be done for a few days because of the catastrophic impact on access.”

To improve access, debris removal professionals, including the National Guard, contractors, and others, were called in to clear the way for Entergy to assess the situation. Right after the storm cleared and access was improved, Aaronson said Entergy deployed a workforce of some 27,000 workers from 41 states as part of the industry’s mutual assistance network. 

“Mutual assistance crews were extraordinarily important and helpful to this restoration. They always are,” said Aaronson. “They are an army that can be brought together at a moment’s notice and they’re incredibly valuable. It was no different in this case.”

Entergy and the mutual assistance network had the power back on in about a week in the major portions of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, with some neighborhoods taking a bit longer.

“These could have been multi-week events. But the fact that 27,000 people from all across North America were able to deploy as effectively as they did, because the sharing of material and equipment is as efficient as it has become, I think as an industry we are getting even better at an already-good process,” Aaronson said.

Yes, there are always opportunities for improvement, he added, such as by making access and assessment faster, not just with crews and bucket trucks but also by using drones and satellite imagery, which Entergy did use more of during Ida. 

“Getting assessments remotely is going to factor into more efficient restorations, as well as hardening the system on the front end,” said Aaronson. “Not that we’ll ever be able to prevent outages during a hurricane or tornado… but it’s easier to re-string a line than to reset a pole that has snapped. And it’s easier to power down the infrastructure before a storm’s impact so that a damaged line doesn’t have electricity running through it.”

Ongoing work 

In areas of Louisiana where the height of Ida’s strength was felt, roughly 2,500 customers currently remain without electric service as lineworkers and other crews continue to set new poles, hang new wire and install new hardware, Entergy said Oct. 8.

Overall, Wilson said, Entergy’s transmission system performed well during Hurricane Ida, with the company’s newer assets largely remaining intact and requiring repairs as opposed to full-scale replacement. 

For example, along a transmission path originating in Port Fourchon, where Ida made landfall, only three out of the 387 newer, more resilient structures were destroyed. In contrast, a seven-mile transmission line with pre-1997 design structures along this same path was taken down by Ida, with more than half of the line’s structures destroyed, Wilson explained. 

In the New Orleans area, while there was a failure of one Entergy Louisiana-owned transmission tower in the face of intense wind gusts, the other seven transmission lines used to import power into the region had only minimal damage, said Wilson. 

“Those seven lines are, in total, approximately 150 miles in length and consist of approximately 1,500 total structures — the individual poles or towers that hold the lines in the air,” he said. “Of those, greater than 99 percent were undamaged.” 

Entergy’s New Orleans Power Station (NOPS) operated as expected and did exactly what it was designed to do both during and following Hurricane Ida, which devastated the local electric grid and damaged portions of the surrounding transmission system, Wilson added.

He explained that when a storm causes widespread damage to the grid, all power plants are designed to shut down automatically. Power plants that continue operating when there are no lines connecting to customers risk being damaged or destroyed if they do not shut down. 

“NOPS was able to start up and begin generating power nearly immediately after the hurricane left the region,” Wilson said. “However, engineers needed to ensure that there was a connection between the power plant and customers via local power lines, that is, the lines that run from NOPS to customers’ homes and businesses.”

Wilson noted that while NOPS is capable of blackstart operation — meaning to come online with no grid power to support it — it was not required to play that role following Ida. A transmission line from nearby Slidell, La., was largely undamaged and thus available to be used in combination with power generated by NOPS to restore first lights to New Orleans less than 48 hours after Ida left the region, without in any way delaying first lights for the city, he said. 

“It is more reliable and electrically secure to operate a power plant in conjunction with a transmission line in service, rather than in an ‘island’ configuration, though we were prepared fully to operate NOPS in an island mode should that have been necessary,” explained Wilson. “Once NOPS was brought online, it operated extremely well in following the ebb and flow of customers’ power needs as we brought customers back online.”

Entergy also continues to provide support for its communities while they recover from Ida, Wilson said. 

“The company deployed 165 commercial scale generators to power critical community infrastructure such as medical facilities, gas stations, grocery stores, municipal water systems and community cooling centers in advance of their power being restored,” he explained. “Further, Entergy’s shareholders committed $1.25 million in financial support to help affected communities rebuild and recover from the storm.”

Wilson added that power was restored to nearly all Entergy customers that could safely receive it by Sept. 27 and restoration efforts continue in the hardest-hit areas, including Port Fourchon and Grand Isle, La. 

“Here, our system will require an entire rebuild, not just a restoration,” he said. “As part of this rebuild, we’re taking steps to make our system more resilient to future storms. We also continue to work along our waterways in both the Bayou Region and River Parishes, where special equipment is needed to bring service back to those areas.”

What’s ahead

Greg Grillo, principal for Incident Preparedness & Response Solutions LLC, which is focused on reviewing and working with companies to improve and test their emergency response plans, and former Entergy storm incident commander prior to retiring in 2017, told Daily Energy Insider that Entergy will likely rebuild totally devastated areas, restore customers that can now accept service, and make permanent repairs to infrastructure that was temporarily fixed to get the lights back on. 

“If not already conducted, Entergy will conduct an ‘after action’ session to identify what went well and what improvements are needed,” such as processes, training, materials, logistics, etc., Grillo said, explaining that most utilities have Asset Management teams that analyze the performance of their infrastructure and develop plans to replace, upgrade or install new assets to help ensure a system is reliable.

“In general, five-year plans are put together annually, due to potential adjustments in performance or growth, and then approved and implemented based on budgets,” Grillo said. “You must prioritize your plan based on the best bang for your buck, since most of the time there is not enough budget to do all of your desired projects. “No different than a homeowner needing maintenance and wanting an addition. You must prioritize what you do.”

And given that hardened assets perform well during severe storms and are worth the investment, a widely held view among officials is that grid hardening investments should be done without overburdening electric customers with the cost, which is one reason why federal funding is so important.

“Yes, I believe that is the view on Capitol Hill and even at state and local levels,” Grillo said. “If Entergy or other utilities hardened their systems too quickly, those costs would be passed onto customers who likely couldn’t afford the monthly bill. That is why prioritization of investments in the infrastructure is so important.” 

“Back to my house example: if you did everything now for maintenance and the addition, you likely couldn’t afford your monthly mortgage payment,” he said.

Wison, who is Entergy’s current storm incident commander, said that a policy conversation is needed with local, state and federal leaders to identify effective ways to harden essential facilities along the coast, to better protect the millions of people who live near the coast from the hardships they experience after storms such as Ida, and to continue protecting those least able to afford their bills from crippling increases.

“During and after this storm, large investments we have made in recent years in transmission and generation played a critical role in restoring service to the region,” Wilson reiterated. “It is evident that major events such as Ida are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity, and we understand and recognize that there is significant additional work to do to harden essential electric system facilities to better withstand these types of events.

“Such hardening is extremely costly, and too many of our customers already struggle to afford their bills,” he said. 

Some relief may be possible under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, H.R. 3684, being negotiated in Congress. The measure includes a proposal for $60 billion to upgrade power infrastructure by building thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines to facilitate the expansion of renewable energy, the single largest investment in clean energy transmission in American history.

EEI’s Aaronson said that infrastructure investments, especially to prepare for increasingly severe and extreme weather, are supported by the industry, which last year spent north of $130 billion in capital projects and updates and expects to do the same this year. 

“This is an industry that has already invested heavily in its infrastructure,” he said. “But I do think that federal support for some of these more extraordinary hazards and some of the things to better prepare for extreme weather also will be welcomed by the industry.”