New Orleans built a power plant to prepare for the storm. It’s dark for 2 days.

New Orleans built a power plant to prepare for the storm. It’s dark for 2 days.

NEW ORLEANS – Linda Williams is used to power supplies in her neighborhood, where strong winds often damage the power lines crossing her street. But Hurricane Ida was different. Within days of losing power, the heat made her so dizzy that she had to stay in bed.

“My head started getting real, real bad,” said Ms Williams, 71, who was also struggling to wash the dishes without feeling sick.

Just a few miles from Ms Williams’ home in New Orleans East is a new, 128-MW gas power plant, which she and thousands of other New Orleans residents help fund each month, when they are the city’s only electric energy giant. to pay your bills. Utility. The plant went online last year with a promise that it would provide quick, reliable start-up power to a city that is struggling to cope with more powerful storms coming in from the Gulf of Mexico.

But more than a week after a Category 4 hurricane toppled transmission lines and severed connections to the city’s outdoor power grid, Williams and many others in New Orleans were still sitting in dark, damp homes in the city. Just brought back online on Wednesday with the last major parts of. The heat amid extended power outages could cause as many as 10 deaths, the coroner said, after the city’s new power plant did not achieve the “black start” Entergy had promised – quick delivery of electricity in the midst of a blackout.

City Council President Helena Moreno said, “Let’s say you sold a delivery van and the selling point is that when it runs out of power, you can still turn it on to drive it because of the black start feature. Huh.” “Then one day you’re in that situation, your van has no power, and even though it has a black start, the van won’t start,” she said. “Was that what you sold?”

Of all US cities, New Orleans is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. In addition to rising sea levels and more powerful storms, the growing threat comes from the sheer number of days with dangerously warm temperatures – estimated to reach 115 per year in Louisiana by 2050, more than three times the current number.

The power plant, built in a predominantly black and Vietnamese area of ​​the city, which was already populated by junkyards, truck stops and NASA facilities, was sold as a down payment on energy resilience – a guarantee that, even if With the storm cutting off connections to the rest of the electrical grid, the city would be able to rapidly fire its own power plant and send electricity to hospitals, nursing homes and at least some neighborhoods after a powerful summer storm.

It was a big gamble: a $210 million commitment to fossil fuel technology in a city that had already become a national symbol of the dangers of climate change.

From the outset, Entergy officials cautioned that the new plant would be able to power only a small part of the city, even under the best of conditions. But why it took so long to ramp up and how an entire US city could have been without electricity for so long is now a matter of widespread finger-pointing and blame, with the city promising a full investigation that could take months.

Entergy officials said the utility was suffering major damage to large parts of its transmission and distribution network, making it difficult to fully restore electricity to the city, even with the new gas-fired one. The plant was finally commissioned on 1 September, lasting more than two days. After the storm hit.

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“Was it a panacea? No, nothing is,” said Charles Long, the company’s acting vice president of transmission. “But it certainly made a big positive difference.”

A band of residents and national environmental groups argued that it was more necessary than ever for the city to diversify its energy approaches, including investing in bulk battery storage and solar power, hardening transmission infrastructure and increasing overall demand. includes reducing.

“We, the citizens and ratepayers who were against the plant, were right,” said Don Hebert, chairman of the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission. In exchange for accepting another industrial plant in their neighborhood, she said, residents of New Orleans East were promised they would have more reliable power. Instead, when Ida hit, “New Orleans East was not operated.”

Ever since it first proposed the current version of the plant in 2017, Entergy has had an uphill climb on its plans to sell the city.

That the city council had the sole authority to approve the plant was unusual: in 2015 an inner city watchdog found that New Orleans was the only city in the United States charged with regulating an investor-owned energy utility in a state. where there was already a state agency – the Louisiana Public Service Commission – that could do this.

The arrangement provided New Orleans with a greater measure of local control, but also allowed Entergy to avoid direct oversight by energy regulation experts.

Many residents of New Orleans East warned against the plant, saying the location would be vulnerable to flooding. But the city council also heard positive testimony, as a firm hired by Entergy paid actors $60 to go to council meetings and pretend to support the development, an illegal strategy that cost $5 million. fined.

“They were operating in salesman mode,” said Carl Rabago, who previously served on the Texas Public Utilities Commission. “They were trying to sell this power plant on a feature basis but they were less than perfect in explaining the weaknesses and the limits of their claims.”

Entergy argued that the plant would serve as a “peak” facility to operate during periods of high demand. And with its Black Start capability, it will be able to reroute all parts of the city on its own after a blackout, even if New Orleans is cut off from its normal sources of electricity.

But when each of the eight transmission lines that sent electricity to the city suffered heavy damage during Ida, there was no black start. The city was dark for more than 50 hours, and even once the small pockets of power began to return, it was because one of them had repaired a transmission line.

Why Black didn’t start is one of the questions to be answered during the ensuing investigation. Ms Moreno, the city council president, said the council would try to find out “whether the previous council was over-sold on what this plant can do or not.”

Environmentalists and other advocates calling for a greater reliance on locally generated renewable energy were skeptical of Entergy’s promises from the start.

Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a consumer utility nonprofit, predicted at a city council meeting in February 2018 that storms enough to bring down all transmission lines “would have such a devastating effect”. On fragile power lines inside the city that plant would “help very little.”

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Entergy has come under fire over the years for failing to adequately maintain its distribution network. In 2019, the city council fined the company $1 million after finding that it failed to properly maintain electric poles and wiring after a series of power failures between 2014 and 2017. The company reduced its investment in the distribution system by $1 million in 2014, after which the length and frequency of outages increased.

Dina Rodriguez, chief executive of Entergy’s New Orleans operation, said the company did not mislead the city about the new gas plant’s capabilities.

“I don’t know what they understood at the time, but I do know what we presented at the time, and I think we were accurate in our presentation,” Ms Rodriguez said.

Once commissioned, the plant provided electricity to parts of the city that would otherwise have been dark for a long time, he said.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there that leads people – not us – to believe that this will somehow power the whole city,” Ms Rodriguez said. “The plant worked. It had the right technology at the time it was selected, it performed great during a storm.”

Entergy officials said the company could try a black start after Ida, but decided against it after learning that one of the damaged transmission lines – from Slidell, northeast of New Orleans – occurred at about the same time. Repair can be done, which will take it. Build an “island” grid in the city that can accommodate power from the new plant without causing a harmful load imbalance.

He said the Black Start capability is more likely to be useful in a situation where a tornado passes near New Orleans — cutting off power coming from elsewhere in the city — but that Ida has been able to dismantle distribution lines inside the city along the way. not done.

“We could do it, we were ready to do it,” said Mr. Long, Entergy’s vice president. “It just wasn’t the best option.”

Entergy officials have insisted that relying on locally generated renewable energy to tide the city through the storm remains a pipe dream.

While about 38 percent of the electricity provided by Entergy to New Orleans comes from non-fossil-fuel sources – mostly nuclear – solar power produced within the city has the potential to produce about 5 percent of the city’s peak energy demand. Energy experts said.

“If you want to design a system that can withstand a Category 5 storm, and everyone gets their lights back on the next day – with today’s technology, that is absolutely impossible,” Mr. Long said.

Some experts say that investing in renewable energy is beneficial over time. And Entergy’s argument does not sit well with many residents, including Ms Williams, who say there is no more time to wait. He and about 200,000 other customers are paying more electricity bills every month To fund the new power station. Sitting in her living room this week, where it took eight days for the electricity to return, she realized she didn’t get what she paid for.

“It doesn’t matter whether the plant is there or not,” she said. “We still have problems.”

Evan Penney Contributed to reporting.

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