Hurricane Ida Exposes Grid Weaknesses as New Orleans Goes Darkish

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Much of New Orleans went dark on Sunday after Hurricane Ida shut down transmission lines and disconnected power plants. It was an all-too-familiar scene in a city that often lost power in major storms.

But that was a failure that should never happen. The utility Entergy opened a new natural gas power plant in the city last year and promised that it will help keep the lights on – even on hot summer days and major storms. It was one of two natural gas-fired power plants commissioned in the New Orleans area in recent years, the other recognized last year by Governor John Bel Edwards as “a source of clean energy that will give our state a competitive advantage and help our communities to grow ”. ”

The storm raises new questions about how well the energy industry prepared for natural disasters that many scientists believe will become more common due to climate change. That year, much of Texas was shrouded in darkness after a winter storm, and last summer California officials ordered rolling power outages during a heat wave.

More than a million residential and commercial customers in Louisiana were without power on Monday afternoon, and Entergy and other utilities in the state said it would take days to assess the damage to their equipment and weeks to fully restore service across the state . A customer can be a family or a large company, so the number of people without electricity is most likely many times higher. In neighboring Mississippi, almost 100,000 customers were without electricity.

Residents and government officials are now wondering why the facility failed to keep electricity flowing to at least part of the city and how all eight transmission lines bringing electricity to New Orleans from elsewhere went out of service at the same time – a mistake Entergy blamed on Idas’ “catastrophic.” Intensity”.

“If something happened to the transmission, this gas facility should provide power to the city of New Orleans,” said Monique Harden, assistant director of public order at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, one of the leading organizations fighting the city’s gas plants. “That will take some investigation.”

Entergy did not immediately respond to requests to discuss the gas system and its transmission lines.

Extreme weather related to climate change has strained power grids across the country, increasing the number of natural disasters, leaving hospitals, governments, people and businesses without power for days or weeks. Storms have shown that energy companies and their regulators haven’t done enough to harden transmission lines and power plants to withstand extreme temperatures and winds. In some cases, power lines and other utilities have caused disasters such as some of California’s largest and deadliest wildfires.

In February, a winter storm plunged much of Texas into darkness for days. Dozens of people died, often trying to keep warm. It quickly emerged that power plants, natural gas pipelines, and other infrastructure weren’t protected from the freezing cold, and that Texas lawmakers had made it impossible to import electricity by largely isolating the state power grid from the rest of the country to avoid state oversight.

Energy experts said it was too early to say what happened to Entergy’s New Orleans gas plant and transmission lines and to learn from the storm. But natural disasters have highlighted the need for improvement, including reducing the grids’ vulnerability to major outages.

“In general, you will never be able to build a system that will absolutely withstand any natural disaster,” said Larry Gasteiger, general manager of Wires, a trade association representing utilities that build and operate power lines. “But it speaks for the need to build a more resilient system.”

The Biden government has budgeted tens of billions of dollars to add more transmission lines to move more solar and wind energy from one region of the country to another. However, some energy experts said that the increasing frequency of devastating cyclones, forest fires, and other disasters speaks against a large investment in power lines and in favor of larger investments in smaller systems such as solar panels and batteries on the roof. With small systems installed in many homes, businesses, schools, and other buildings, some will still function when others are damaged, providing much-needed energy during and after disasters.

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Updated

Aug. 30, 2021, 6:09 p.m. ET

Susan Guidry, a former New Orleans city council member who voted against the Entergy facility, said she was concerned that a storm like Ida could devastate her city and energy system. She had wanted the city and the utility to consider other options. But she said her fellow councilors and the utility company ignored these warnings.

“They said they solved this problem,” said Ms. Guidry. “The bottom line is that they should have upgraded their transmission and invested in renewable energies instead.”

Numerous community groups and city guides opposed the gas-fired power plant, which is located south of Interstate 10 and Lake Pontchartrain and borders predominantly African-American and Vietnamese-American neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the city council approved the facility, which went into commercial operation in May 2020. It generates electricity primarily at peak times.

About a year earlier, Entergy had opened a larger gas-fired power plant in nearby St. Charles Parish. Leo P. Denault, Chairman and Chief Executive of Entergy, described this facility last year as “a significant milestone on the path to clean energy that we began more than 20 years ago”.

Some utilities have set out to bury transmission lines to protect them from high winds and storms, but Mr Gasteiger said doing so was expensive and could create his own problems.

“In general, it’s not that the utilities aren’t ready,” he said. “People are not ready to pay for it. Usually it’s a question of cost. And the subsurface can make it harder to locate and fix problems.

Big changes to power grids and power plants will likely take years, but activists and New Orleans residents say officials should seek solutions that can be implemented faster, especially since tens of thousands of people are left without power for days or weeks. Some activists want officials to prioritize rooftop investments in solar panels, batteries, and microgrids that can power homes and commercial buildings even when the larger grid fails.

“We continue to adhere to solutions to keep people safe in their homes,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a New Orleans-based consumer group. “When these events happen, we are in crisis mode because instead we are spending billions of dollars every year to rebuild the same system that leaves people in the dark and in dire straits.”

Some residents have already invested in small energy systems themselves. Julie Graybill and her husband Bob Smith installed solar panels and batteries for older dogs in their New Orleans home after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, said Ms. Graybill, 67, who retired from Tulane University School of Medicine.

“We were in the car about every hour,” she said. “My husband said, ‘We’ll never do this again.’” Mr. Smith, 73, who is also retired, worked as an engineer at the Royal Dutch Shell oil company.

The couple set up a small power plant on their porch so neighbors can charge their phones and other items. Few other houses on their street have solar panels, but no one around has batteries that can store and deliver electricity when the grid fails.

“We were told we would be without electricity for three weeks,” said Ms. Graybill. “The only people who have electricity are people with generators or solar panels. We lived through Katrina. This is not Katrina, so we’re lucky. “