To keep the lights on, New Orleans’ grid needs to change—here’s how

Proponents of renewable energy see a better way to keep power through storms expected to get stronger: make energy generation much more community-based.

Three days after Hurricane Ida made landfall in southeastern Louisiana, workers stabilize a downed power line. The crews work 16-hour days and estimate that they won't be finished for about a month.

Power went out in my New Orleans apartment on Saturday, August 28—the day before Category 4 Hurricane Ida crashed into Port Fourchon on Louisiana’s southern coast, 100 miles away. By Sunday night, more than a million Louisiana households and businesses were without electricity, and the entire city of New Orleans was plunged into darkness. Another 104,000 lacked power in Mississippi. On Monday, residents awoke to “feels like” temperatures that rose into the triple digits without air conditioning, fans, ice, or for many, water.

Tens of thousands of electricity workers from 40 states, with the support of the federal government, fanned out across Mississippi and Louisiana. By September 6, Mississippi’s power had been restored, though the same was true for less than half of those who had lost power in Louisiana, including just 64 percent of New Orleans. The hardest hit areas in Louisiana’s lower southeast could remain dark for weeks yet.

Last Friday, with many homes and entire communities destroyed and still underwater, the area’s largest utility company, Entergy, expressed sympathy for the plight of those still without electricity and reminded customers to avoid “incurring late fees or experiencing service disruption” by paying bills on time and online.

Entergy has come under fire for a host of deficiencies critics contend were avoidable and contributed to the historic loss of power—second only to that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Community-based organizations across the Gulf Coast are working to shift the power grid from one based almost exclusively on highly centralized fossil fuels and nuclear power to more localized and equitably distributed renewable energy. Doing that, they contend, will improve service, since smaller systems closer to the end user require less infrastructure to transmit power. The efforts will also contribute to mitigating—rather than adding fuel to—the climate crisis.  

Ida carved a path of death and destruction from New Orleans to New York, and advocates say with climate change expected to deliver ever more powerful storms, there is no longer time to waste.

Does this have to happen again?

“No power,” Ida Aronson, a member of the United Houma Nation, texted from Thibodaux in Lafourche Parish on September 6. Having depleted their savings to purchase a diesel generator, Aronson had use of a portable air conditioner, so “we can sleep tonight. Heat has been an issue, thankful it hasn’t rained much past a couple bands, with so many peoples’ roofs off. Houma has a lot more damage, we didn’t want to use the gas to go check my families’ places further down the Bayou, but they did let me know they were safe. Communication has been tough, scary not knowing if my other family and friends are OK.”

Byron Encalade reported a total loss of power in Pointe à la Hache, a predominately Black fishing community in Plaquemines Parish on one of Louisiana’s rapidly disappearing fingers—areas of coastal land so badly eroded that they are quickly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, the result of both natural and human factors, including the dredging of canals for the oil and gas industry. Most residents were getting by with small generators from their boats that provided minimal power. Encalade could use his freezer, but not his air conditioner. “I’m sweating it out right now talking to you,” the 68-year-old said.

Critics contend that Entergy has not only failed to adequately adapt its energy model to the climate crisis, including the worsening of storms, it has also fought aggressively against readily available solutions, such as solar power.

“Any utility that’s continuing to double down and invest in fossil [fuel] infrastructure is, we think, a real problem, a real shame,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy.

With partners, including Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Alliance says the reasons to make the switch to renewables are many, foremost among them is the possibility of averting the worst of the climate crisis, something Hurricane Ida demonstrated. Combined with other vital improvements, it’s also the best way to ensure that energy is provided more reliably and equitably, it says.

Entergy spokesman Neal Kirby told National Geographic, “Entergy has long believed climate change poses a significant risk to our region, our business, our society, and our planet.” Kirby cited an Entergy plan for at least 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 using, among other means, carbon capture and sequestration, and reducing coal in favor of increased natural gas and nuclear energy.

The company’s current portfolio shows solar projects and purchases totaling 550 megawatts, versus 2,200 megawatts of coal and 17,000 megawatts of natural gas.

Burke is skeptical of the company’s long-term transition commitment, saying that she’s yet to see concrete plans from Entergy to achieve these goals.

What happened during Ida?

We don’t fully know why the provision of electricity has failed so profoundly in the wake of Hurricane Ida; it may be that completely fortifying a power grid against a Category 4 hurricane or worse is not yet possible. What is clear is that the larger the source of energy and the further away it is from its consumers, the more infrastructure is required to move it.

Entergy describes the transmission system as “the backbone of the electric grid” that “helps Entergy move energy from the power plant to the lines serving customers’ neighborhoods.” Without the transmission system, the electricity generated at a power plant has nowhere to go. 

That infrastructure is inherently vulnerable to storms, particularly when needed upkeep isn’t performed. Entergy has been criticized, fined, and investigated for failing to make the necessary investments in its overall operations to adequately meet even the daily energy needs of its customers.

“The problem with the current system is that virtually all of the generation is at the big end of this giant, somewhat brittle,” system, said Karl Rábago, a former member of the Texas Public Utility Commission and former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy. “If the big wire coming out of the ceiling fails, none of the little lights come on.”

Entergy reported that Hurricane Ida rapidly knocked out of service hundreds of substations and transmission lines in Louisiana and Mississippi, including all eight lines that deliver power into southeast Louisiana. In an emailed response to questions, Entergy wrote that these eight lines “tie this integrated transmission system in the Greater New Orleans area to the larger national grid” and cited wind as the suspected primary cause.

Entergy noted the lines can withstand winds of 145 miles an hour. While winds were measured as high as 172 at Port Fourchon during Ida, most gusts were well below 145 miles an hour as the storm moved inland, reaching average recorded speeds of between 90 and 120 miles per hour in and around New Orleans.

Why the lines here fell nonetheless may be answered in a 2018 investigation of Entergy New Orleans by Quanta Technology. The report, the result of a directive by the New Orleans City Council, found that between 2017 and 2018, the number of interruptions in customer service due to transmission and substation outages nearly doubled, from 42,000 to over 81,000, and that Entergy New Orleans experienced significantly higher customer interruptions “due to transmission and substation outages than in the previous two years.” It specifically cited the need for Entergy to invest more in upgrading aging infrastructure and inspections.

Rábago, who runs the consulting firm Rábago Energy LLC, warned that those transmission outages should have required a “priority response” from both Entergy and its regulator.

Entergy has said that the company invested $4.2 billion in its transmission lines from 2014 to 2019. A $100 million “reliability project” in Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes included a new transmission line and upgrades to several existing lines.[1] Much of Jefferson and all of Plaquemines Parish not only lack power today, but are not expected to see it restored before the end of September.

In February, Entergy said in a securities filing that hurricanes last year damaged several transmission lines, including an unspecified one in southeastern Louisiana. “The company said that the line had not been repaired because it could cost a lot to do so,” the New York Times reported.

In response to questions, Entergy identified the line as one that services Barataria in Jefferson Parish, which has remained without power since Ida struck. Entergy did not address the issue of cost, rather saying, “It was significantly damaged by Hurricane Zeta and required extensive repairs that would take well over one year to complete.”

Meanwhile, Entergy brought in $10.1 billion in revenue in 2020 and its profits climbed 12 percent, to $1.4 billion.

Frequent outages, unequal impacts

An Alliance for Affordable Energy analysis compared New Orleans to the nation and Louisiana as a whole and found that the city not only has “excessively high durations and frequencies of power outages,” but that they are also unequal.

Gentilly, New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward, neighborhoods which are majority people of color and low income, experience the greatest proportion of outages, demonstrating “a clear form of environmental racism,” the analysis said. New Orleans also has the second highest percentage of household income spent on energy bills in the country.

One reason why these bills are so high is that Entergy adds fees to recoup from customers the costs it incurs because of disasters, including hurricanes. While an increasingly common practice among energy companies, the frequency of such events here means rate payers regularly feel the pinch to their wallets.

In 2017, Entergy sought to build a new natural gas power plant in a predominately Black and Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans East. It faced such intense public opposition that the company paid actors reading from prepared scripts to attend public hearings and voice their “support” for the plant. The company was fined after the ruse was uncovered by local media, but the plant went through. It was supposed to provide backup energy were the city to be cut off from the national grid. In the wake of Ida, it failed.

Power to the people

 Instead of new natural gas plants, Logan Burke and Marriele Mango of the Clean Energy Group describe “a multitude of resilient and renewable power opportunities that can be incorporated to improve grid reliability and better prepare and support communities in the event of an outage.” The Alliance also joined a long list of local organizations contributing to a 2020 report detailing a host of alternatives.

Burke’s first priority is “solar plus storage”—solar panels combined with backup batteries. The batteries are expensive, so government support, especially for low-income and communities of color, would help more people acquire them. The panels would be installed on peoples’ homes, businesses, and community hubs, particularly those used as shelter, cooling, and charging stations in times of emergency. She also wants to see microgrids, small backup electrical distribution and generation systems that can operate independently from the larger grid if an outage occurs, such as a felled transmission line.

Despite strong local support, efforts to advance net metering, which allows users to store excess electricity on the grid, making it available when the sun doesn’t shine, were defeated in New Orleans in 2019 by opponents, including Entergy. Making homes and buildings more energy efficient would reduce energy consumption, lower electricity bills, and provide well-paying jobs. The region also has vast offshore wind potential.

A New Orleans native, actor Wendell Pierce—well known for roles in The Wire and Jack Ryan—heads the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation. The neighborhood where he grew up is on the National Register of Historic Districts as the first African American neighborhood created in post-WWII segregated New Orleans. “We have to do everything possible to mitigate the climate crisis, and that means moving our neighborhood into the 21st century with renewable energy,” he said. To that end, the neighborhood association is developing a community solar project that will service all 1,000 homes in the district.

Jonathan Green, executive director of Mississippi-based Steps Coalition, also advocates community solar and is already building “the first community solar farm on the Gulf Coast.” Communally owned and operated, the farm will be capable of powering 500 nearby low-income homes while providing training in solar jobs for the local Black community. Expanding community solar to more areas has been difficult, he says, as “utilities here have been very resistant to solar.”

Green argued that federal support is needed to leapfrog recalcitrant local and state governments and make the shift away from fossil fuels at the pace and scale needed. The infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate, and the Budget Reconciliation bill in the House, both include funding for many of these items, but more is needed, Burke said. Locally, Burke is part of both a Gulf South for a Green New Deal effort and supports the national Green New Deal, which includes not only much larger financial commitments to a just transition, but also a greater focus on environmental justice more broadly.

“If the power isn’t where people are, it isn’t able to support them,” Burke says.

Annie Flanagan is a documentary photographer focusing on issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and trauma in the United States.

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