New Orleans council weighing cost and benefits of Entergy grid upgrades

Published on August 17, 2023 by Hil Anderson

Credit: Entergy

Hurricane forecasters this month raised their estimations of the number of storms that could threaten the Gulf Coast through the remainder of the season, but Entergy New Orleans already has been laying the groundwork for a sturdier power grid better able to stand up to the rigors of future severe-weather assaults.

Entergy has unveiled resilience plans to upgrade its network in the Southeastern United States, a region already prone to wild thunderstorms, tornados, and the annual roster of named tropical storms that can make a shambles of power poles, substations and transmission lines that can take days and weeks to untangle.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ratcheted its prediction for the next few months up from “near normal” to a 60-percent likelihood of an “above-normal” number of major storms that could come ashore along the coast and also spread havoc well inland.

Entergy Corp.’s subsidiary electric companies Entergy New Orleans and Entergy Louisiana continue to develop ambitious plans to ensure the region’s infrastructure can better withstand future storms and be put back into service more quickly when areas suffer damage.

“It benefits the customers to be able to have their power on, and it helps the economy to get people back to work and to a normal life in a matter of days instead of weeks,” said Ronald A. Brisé, Government Affairs Consultant at Gunster, a Florida-based business law firm, who is also a former commissioner for the Florida Public Service Commission.

Moreover, New Orleans will be a major front in Entergy’s preventative campaign, which calls for extensive hardening of power lines both in the city and in transmission corridors that feed power into the community.

Entergy New Orleans filed a request with the New Orleans City Council earlier this summer for approval of the first phase of a 10-year, $1 billion campaign to keep the lights on amid the gloomy forecasts of increased destructive weather due to climate change.

“With storms impacting New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast with more frequency and severity, we must accelerate our grid hardening efforts and put shovels in the ground as soon as possible,” said Deanna Rodriguez, president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans.

City hall has extensive knowledge of the havoc a hurricane can wreak in low-lying New Orleans, and also happens to be the regulating agency overseeing Entergy New Orleans. This winter, the council imposed new reliability requirements for the utility, giving some significant additional weight to the yet-to-be-scheduled hearing on Phase 1 of Entergy’s strategy.

“While no amount of infrastructure investment can make any electric system completely resistant to weather conditions, we believe by hardening our grid, New Orleans will be better prepared,” Rodriguez said.

Hurricane Katrina, which peaked at Category 5 intensity, left some 3 million residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast residents without power for a month or longer in 2005. Hurricane Ida hit in 2021 and, in terms of the power supply, was even worse. The Category 4 storm toppled eight major transmission lines and scores of wooden utility poles, leaving thousands of New Orleans residents sweltering without air conditioning, lights and other basic necessities for several days.

Entergy New Orleans’ Phase 1 plan is highlighted by the Front Street-to-Michoud 230-kilovolt line that will stretch 23 miles across Lake Pontchartrain and feed power into New Orleans. The company intends to replace about 100 supporting towers and structures with new structures capable of withstanding winds up to 150 miles per hour. Inside the city, Entergy New Orleans plans to underground another two miles of lines and upgrade more than 12,000 poles to withstand 140 mph gusts.

Entergy New Orleans, which provides electricity to more than 209,000 customers,has estimated the project will require monthly residential customer bills to tick up 24 cents in incremental increases. That would add up to around $12 per month by 2028.

Entergy Louisiana, meanwhile, has its own plans to accelerate the restoration of power and help communities recover more quickly following major storms. The utility submitted a 10-year, $9.6 billion Entergy Future Ready resiliency plan with its regulator, the Louisiana Public Service Commission, late last year. It calls for 9,600 distribution and transmission projects that would strengthen more than 269,000 structures over 11,000 miles of powerlines. It also includes enhanced vegetation management to mitigate the damage and outages during storms caused by trees in or near infrastructure.

“Our Entergy Future Ready resilience plan is about making sure we’re not only meeting the daily power needs of residents, small businesses and industries, among many other stakeholders, but also meeting their needs in the toughest of times,” Phillip May, Entergy Louisiana president and CEO, said at the time of the filing.

Utility regulators can look east to Gulf Coast neighbor Florida to back up the idea that benefits of ongoing grid resiliency efforts justify the costs.

Florida has been upgrading its own grid since multiple hurricanes battered the state in 2004, followed by the behemoth Hurricane Wilma a year later, which left more than 3 million Florida Power & Light (FPL) customers without electricity. The projects range from the latest technology to track storms and monitor the grid down to expanded vegetation management. The result, FPL said, has been a 40-percent improvement in reliability since 2006.

“We can see concrete evidence that the investment in hardening the grid has paid off,” said Brisé.

Brisé told Daily Energy Insider that Florida has escaped more-recent storms in relatively good shape in part due to the steps taken to help keep the lights on and also get households and businesses back to normal as quickly as possible.

Brisé noted the impact of Hurricane Ian last year. The Category 5 storm clobbered Cuba before moving on to the southern half of Florida, causing widespread outages. “The property damage was significant, but all of the customers whose houses could take power had it back on within days,” he said.

While some members of the New Orleans council have been publicly assuring their constituents that Entergy New Orleans’ resiliency project won’t amount to a blank-check increase in electric rates, Brisé urged the council, as well as regulators in other storm-prone regions, not to be pennywise and pound foolish when it comes to the outcomes.

“Their role is to ensure that you can secure service that is reliable, effective, safe and reasonable in terms of rates,” Brisé said. “You are balancing the cost to the customer in the moment, and also over the longer term.”

“A well-planned investment,” he added, “is really less expensive in the long run.”