Why Louisiana’s Power Grid Failed in Hurricane Ida

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Just weeks before Hurricane Ida cut power to much of Louisiana and exposed residents to extreme heat and humidity, the chief executive of Entergy, the state’s largest utility, told Wall Street it had upgraded power lines and equipment to to withstand major storms.

“Building more resiliency into our system is an ongoing focus,” its executive director, Leo P. Denault, told financial analysts during an Aug. 4 conference call, adding that Entergy replaced its towers and poles with equipment “that can handle higher winds.” can handle loading and flooding levels.”

Mr Denault’s statements were soon to be severely tested. On the last Sunday in August, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana and dealt a catastrophic blow to Entergy’s power lines, towers and poles, many of which were built decades ago to withstand much weaker hurricanes. The company hadn’t upgraded or replaced much of that equipment with more modern gear designed to survive the 150-mph gusts that Ida had put on the state.

A hurricane like Ida would have challenged any energy system built over many decades that contains a mix of outdated and new equipment. But some energy experts said Entergy was clearly unprepared for the Category 4 storm, despite what executives have said about efforts to strengthen its network.

The storm damaged eight power lines that power New Orleans, along with dozens of the company’s towers in the state. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were without power for days. Ida damaged or destroyed 31,000 poles carrying low-voltage distribution lines in neighborhoods, nearly twice as many as Hurricane Katrina, according to Entergy.

Lawmakers and regulators need utilities to ensure safe, reliable service at an affordable cost. The grid outage after Ida is the latest example of how energy companies are struggling to meet those obligations as climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather. In California, electricity suppliers have been forced to cut power to tens of thousands of customers in recent years to prevent their equipment from causing wildfires and to reduce energy demand during heat waves. In February, during a winter storm, most of Texas had power outages, leaving millions of people without power and heating for days.

While Entergy has upgraded its transmission network to withstand wind speeds in excess of 140 miles per hour, much of its transmission equipment in and around New Orleans was built to withstand gusts of about 110 miles per hour, or a category 2 storm, according to an analysis of regulatory filings and other company data by McCullough Research, a Portland, Oregon-based consultancy that advises energy companies and government agencies.

Entergy said the analysis was inaccurate, but would not say how many of its transmission structures were built to withstand 150-mph winds. The company has said its towers met safety standards in effect at the time of installation, but older standards often assumed wind speeds well below 250 mph.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a profession whose guidelines are widely followed by utilities and other industries, recommends power companies operating in areas vulnerable to hurricanes install equipment that can withstand major storms and rapid weather. can serve when systems fail. In coastal Louisiana, for example, it says large transmission equipment should be designed to withstand winds of 150 mph. to resist

“If your customers are without power for three or four weeks today, it’s unacceptable,” said Nelson Bingel, president of the National Electrical Safety Code, standards the engineering group has developed for various industries.

The decisions Entergy, which serves three million customers in Louisiana and three other states, made before Ida struck come under scrutiny as regulators, lawmakers and residents try to figure out why so many people were without electricity for so long. The New Orleans City Council, which oversees Entergy’s operations in the city, has scheduled a hearing on Wednesday.

The central question is whether Entergy was moving fast enough to upgrade its equipment, given the increasing severity of hurricanes. The company says it has acted expeditiously. Its critics claim it dragged his feet.

Residents said they may also wonder if state regulators and city officials have done enough to require Entergy to upgrade its equipment more quickly. The company must request approval for new investments and the increases in the electricity rate that pay for it. Utility regulators can require companies to increase spending or target specific upgrades. Some energy experts have also suggested that regulators consider requiring utilities to lay more power cables underground, an expensive approach that comes with its own problems.

Initial assessments focused on why Entergy took two days to restart a $210 million natural gas-fired plant that the company opened in New Orleans last year that it said would provide power during periods of high demand. including after storms. But energy experts say it’s far more concerning that so many of the company’s lines went down — and did so for the second year in a row.

Last year, Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, destroyed and damaged hundreds of Entergy towers and pilings in southwestern Louisiana. In April, Entergy told the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates its operations outside of New Orleans, that the company had bolstered its equipment, including installing stronger distribution poles in coastal areas that are particularly vulnerable to high winds.

Michelle P. Bourg, who is responsible for transmission at Entergy’s Louisiana operations, told regulators that because it was too expensive to make the entire network resilient, Entergy “pursued targeted programs that cost-effectively mitigate risks to reliability.” .”

In a statement, Entergy said transmission spending worked, noting that Ida destroyed or damaged 508 transmission structures, compared to 1,909 during Laura and 1,003 in Katrina. The company added that its annual investment in transmission in Louisiana and New Orleans has increased over the past eight years, totaling $926 million in 2020, when it spent heavily on repairs after Laura. The company spent $471 million on transmission in 2019.

“The facts of this storm support that we have made significant strides in resilience since the storms that hit our system in the early 2000s — both in general and transmission in particular,” said Jerry Nappi, a researcher. spokesperson for Entergy.

The company declined to provide the age of damaged or destroyed transmission structures and an age range for the damaged distribution poles and equipment. Mr Nappi acknowledged that distribution poles have suffered widespread destruction and are not built to withstand winds of 130 to 250 mph

“Substantial additional investment will be needed to reduce hardships and avoid prolonged outages as increasingly powerful storms strike more frequently,” he said in an email. “We are seeking much-needed federal support for the additional surfacing needed without compromising the affordability of electricity on which our customers and communities depend.”

The company’s plea for more aid comes as President Biden urges to upgrade and expand the country’s electricity system to tackle climate change and protect equipment from disasters. Part of his plan involves spending tens of billions of dollars on transmission lines. Mr. Biden also wants to provide incentives for clean energy sources such as solar and wind power and batteries — the kinds of improvements community leaders in New Orleans have been striving for for years and Entergy often shy away from.

Susan Guidry, a former New Orleans City Council member, said she opposed construction of the new natural gas plant, which was located in a low-lying area near neighborhoods mostly made up of African Americans and Vietnamese Americans. Instead, she pushed for transmission and distribution system upgrades and more investment in solar power and batteries. The council eventually approved Entergy’s plans for the plant over its objections.

“One of the things we argued about was that they should upgrade transmission lines instead of building a peak factory,” Ms Guidry said.

In addition, she said, she called on the company to replace the wooden posts in neighborhoods with those built with stronger materials.

Robert McCullough, director of McCullough Research, said it was hard to understand why Entergy hadn’t improved towers and poles faster.

“Wooden piles no longer have the expected lifespan in the face of climate change,” he said. “Given the repeated failures, it will be cost-effective to replace them with more sustainable options that can survive repeated Category 4 storms – including going to metal poles in many circumstances.”

If Entergy had invested more in its transmission and distribution lines and solar panels and battery systems, some green energy activists argued, the city and state would not have suffered a power outage as widespread and as long as after Ida.

“Entergy Louisiana must be held accountable for this,” said one of those activists, Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Clean Energy.

Entergy has argued that the natural gas plant was a much cheaper and more reliable option to provide electricity during periods of high demand than solar panels and batteries.

Biden’s energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said Ida emphasized the need for a major investment in power grids. That could mean laying more power lines for homes and businesses underground. Burying wires would protect them from wind, although it could be more difficult to access the lines during floods.

“Obviously, if New Orleans is rebuilding, it really needs to be rebuilt in some areas,” Ms Granholm said in an interview this month.

Entergy’s spokesperson, Mr. Nappi, said distribution lines in some parts of New Orleans and elsewhere are already underground, but it would be expensive to bury more of them. “Means of distribution can be made to withstand extreme winds, through engineering or undergrounding, but at significant cost and disruption to customers and the community,” he said.

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