Power to the people
|Praised and derided for its responses to Isaac-related outages, Entergy prepares for post-storm reassessments.|
Entergy officials started tracking Isaac back when he was still getting organized in the Atlantic Ocean. The weekend before landfall, projections had the storm headed for Florida, and Entergy was preparing to send a support team to help utilities in the Sunshine State. But as the storm drifted west, Entergy realized Louisiana was going to need help.
The help came, supporting workers already in place. And while the post-storm assessments haven't yet begun, Entergy, at least, lauds its response to the storm. The company and its critics agree more could be done to fortify the system against future storms. The question: How much do you want to spend?
“When you look at the results of this restoration, the time frame in which we've restored [power], and restored it safely, it's the best we've ever done,” says Bill Mohl, president/CEO of Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States.
Entergy also received praise for its response from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“The typical benchmark for utility companies is to restore power to 70% of customers within five to seven days,” says William Bryan, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure security and energy restoration, in a prepared statement. “The pace of Entergy's restoration, restoring power to 90% of its customers in four to five days, is unbelievable.”
Not everyone was impressed. Jefferson Parish President John Young complained of a lack of urgency and reportedly said he'd want to fire Entergy's CEO if he were on the board of directors. By contrast, East Baton Rouge Parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel praised Entergy's and DEMCO's performance and cooperation with the Department of Public Works during the storm and its aftermath.
Tony Clayton, a Port Allen-based attorney, has filed a class-action suit on behalf of Entergy New Orleans and Entergy Louisiana customers, alleging the utilities didn't properly prepare for, or respond to, Isaac. While his suit does not target Entergy Gulf States, which serves Baton Rouge, he says he wouldn't be surprised if another lawyer files a suit that does.
“We can take the depositions of all the higher-ups at Entergy as well as several employees who used to work for Entergy,” he says. “It will shed a complete light for the public as to what took place, and what led up to this debacle.”
Jimmy Field, who represents most of East Baton Rouge Parish and the surrounding area on the Louisiana Public Service Commission, says the suit, whatever its merits, might be premature.
“When they're out there restoring power, I'm supportive,” Field says. “I will be as tough as anybody when we evaluate [the utilities].”
Entergy's investment in and maintenance of its system always are questioned after major storms. Mohl says Entergy spent more than $500 million in its high-voltage transmission system between 2008—when Hurricane Gustav damaged or destroyed nearly 12,000 distribution poles and almost 5,000 transformers—and 2011, adding redundancies and hardening the system. New transmission poles in southeast Louisiana are made of steel or concrete rather than wood, for example.
Of course, a half-billion-dollar investment doesn't mean much when your electricity's out, especially if your neighbor has power. Dennis Dawsey, Entergy Louisiana's vice president for transmission and distribution operations, compares the distribution system that feeds homes and businesses to a tree. The main feeder line from the substation is like the trunk, which branches out into neighborhoods in smaller and smaller segments. Someone who lives a few blocks away might be on a different branch.
Traffic signals at major intersections tend to be near feeder lines, and so tend to regain power fairly early. After Isaac, East Baton Rouge ran some lights, such as the one at Bluebonnet Boulevard and Perkins Road, on portable generators, Daniel says.
But while built-in generators for traffic signals were discussed after Gustav, Daniel says it was found to be cost-prohibitive. However, the idea may be revisited when the next batch of lights needs to be replaced.
Whether you're talking about embedding generators in traffic lights or building transmission capacity, there's always a necessary cost-benefit analysis. The public could urge utilities and governments to build the most expensive, gold-plated system in the world, presumably, but the costs will fall on ratepayers.
More lines could be built underground, for example, for several times the cost of building above ground. But even that wouldn't be a cure-all, Dawsey says; underground lines are more vulnerable to flooding and take two to three times longer to restore after an outage.
Field says only places with very high population densities, such as New York City, can justify burying transmission lines. He says an evaluation of the system's weaknesses will be performed after the storm, and those flaws should be addressed.
“[But] it would cost so much to just go around and rebuild everything,” Field says.
This is south Louisiana, after all. To a certain extent, storms, and the outages they bring, come with the territory.
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