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Hurricane Ida reveals network weaknesses as New Orleans darkens

Most of New Orleans went extinct on Sunday after Hurricane Ida destroyed transmission lines and forced power plants to go offline. It was an all-too-familiar scene in a city that often lost electricity in heavy storms.

But it was a breakdown that was never meant to happen. Utility company Entergy opened a new natural gas-fired power plant in the city last year, promising it would help keep the lights on, even during hot summer days and heavy storms. It was one of two natural gas plants commissioned in recent years in the New Orleans area, the other hailed by Governor John Bel Edwards last year as a “source of clean energy that gives our state a competitive advantage and helps our communities grow. “

The storm raises new questions about how the energy industry has prepared for natural disasters, which many scientists say are becoming increasingly common due to climate change. This year, much of Texas was plunged into darkness after a winter storm, and California officials last summer ordered continuous blackouts during a heat wave.

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

Residents and government officials are now asking why the power plant did not allow electricity to flow to at least part of the city and how the eight transmission lines bringing electricity to New Orleans from elsewhere were taken out of service at the same time – a failure Entergy blamed. on Ida’s “catastrophic intensity”.

“If anything happened to the transmission, this gas plant was supposed to provide electricity to the city of New Orleans,” said Monique Harden, deputy director of public policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, one of the leading anti-gas organizations. plant in town. “This is going to require an investigation. “

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

Extreme weather conditions linked to climate change have strained power grids across the country, worsening the toll of natural disasters leaving hospitals, governments, people and businesses without power for days or weeks. The storms revealed that energy companies and their regulators had not done enough to toughen transmission lines and power plants to withstand extreme temperatures and winds. In some cases, power lines and other utility equipment 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 became apparent that power plants, gas pipelines, and other infrastructure were not protected from freezing cold, and that lawmakers had prevented Texas from importing electricity by keeping the state’s grid largely isolated. the rest of the country to avoid federal oversight. .

Energy experts said it was too early to say what happened to the Entergy gas plant and transmission lines in New Orleans and learn any lessons from the storm. But natural disasters have highlighted the need for improvements, including making networks less prone to major outages.

“Generally speaking, you will never be able to build a system that can withstand any natural disaster,” said Larry Gasteiger, executive director of Wires, a trade association that represents the utilities that build and operate transmission lines. at high voltage. “But it speaks to the need to build a more resilient system.”

The Biden administration has budgeted tens of billions of dollars to add more transmission lines to carry more solar and wind power from one region of the country to another. But some energy experts have said the increasing frequency of devastating hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters argues against a big investment in power lines and for a bigger investment in smaller-scale systems like solar panels. on roofs and batteries. Since small systems are installed in many homes, businesses, schools and other buildings, some continue to function even when others are damaged, providing much-needed energy during and after disasters.

Susan Guidry, a former New Orleans city council member who voted against the Entergy plant, said she feared a storm like Ida could wreak havoc on her city and energy system. She had wanted the city and the utility to consider other options. But she said her fellow council members and the public service ignored the warnings.

“They said they fixed this problem,” Ms. Guidry said. “In the end, they should have improved their transmission and invested in renewable energy.”

Many community groups and city leaders have opposed the gas-fired power plant, located just south of Interstate 10 and Lake Pontchartrain, bordering predominantly African-American and Vietnamese neighborhoods. Nonetheless, the city council approved the plant, which began commercial operations in May 2020. It produces electricity mainly at peak demand periods.

About a year earlier, Entergy opened a larger gas-fired power station in the nearby parish of St. Charles. Last year, Leo P. Denault, President and CEO of Entergy, called the plant “an important step in the clean energy journey that we began over 20 years ago.”

Some utilities have turned to burying transmission lines to protect them from high winds and storms, but Mr Gasteiger said it was expensive and could cause its own problems.

“Generally speaking, it’s not that the utilities aren’t willing to do it,” he said. “It’s that people are not ready to pay for it. It is usually a question of cost. And landfilling 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 explore solutions that can be deployed faster, especially as dozens of thousands of people face days or weeks without electricity. Some activists want authorities to prioritize investments in rooftop solar power, batteries and micro-grids, which can power homes and commercial buildings even when the largest grid goes down.

“We continue to walk through the 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, then we are in crisis mode because instead we are spending billions of dollars every year now to rebuild the same system that leaves people in the dark, in dire straits.”

Some residents have already invested in small-scale energy systems for themselves. Julie Graybill and her husband, Bob Smith, installed solar panels and batteries in their New Orleans home after Hurricane Isaac passed through Louisiana in 2012. They lost power for five days after Isaac, sometimes going to their car for air conditioning with their two older dogs, said Ms Graybill, 67, who has retired from Tulane University medical school.

“We used to sit in the car about every hour,” she said. “My husband said, ‘We’ll never do that again.’ Mr. Smith, 71, who is also retired, worked as an engineer at Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company.

The couple installed a small power station on their porch so neighbors could charge their phones and other items. Only a few other houses on their street have solar panels, but no one else nearby has batteries, which can store the energy generated by the panels and distribute it when the grid goes down.

“We are told we will not have electricity for three weeks,” Ms Graybill said. “The only people who have electricity are those who have generators or solar panels. We lived through Katrina. It’s not Katrina, so we’re in luck.

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