In a city gone dark, the St. Peter Apartments were a bright spot. After most of New Orleans’ power went out over the weekend, the 50-unit affordable housing complex in Mid-City had eight hours of electricity a day. That’s a luxury right this moment; nearly a million people in Louisiana have been without service since Hurricane Ida made landfall.
Residents at St. Peter Apartments can charge their phones and run appliances thanks to a 178-kilowatt solar array on the roof and a battery downstairs. “We were able to give folks eight hours of energy in a city where no one else has power,” said Lauren Avioli, director of housing development at SBP, the nonprofit that developed the complex, which also includes a community center. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how cool it would be for the community if more places had on-site battery storage systems, especially public buildings where people could come charge phones and so on.”
Ida knocked out eight of the eight transmission lines feeding New Orleans and thousands of miles of distribution lines. The city’s core functions, like hospitals and drainage pumps, are running on diesel generators. Most people are stuck in dark, hot homes where nothing turns on.
The next time this happens—and there will be a next time—New Orleans ought to have solar panels and batteries at public buildings around the city and, more generally, more local power infrastructure that’s ready for the grid to fail. In 2017, a team from Sandia National Laboratories studied New Orleans’ power problems and concluded that the city and its utility ought to plan for some degree of self-sufficiency, to “operate localized sections of the grid without centralized utility power or communications for at least seven days, and up to 12-13 days for more critical functions where costs allow.” In the electricity business, that’s called distributed energy. Build with the expectation that the system will give out. Because it has, over and over again.
“Transmission hardening is necessary,” said Logan Burke, the executive director of Louisiana’s Alliance for Affordable Energy. “But we can’t just assume they can build a strong-enough transmission system for this.” There’s some vulnerability built in to the very idea of shipping electricity hundreds of miles, or even across town in the shade of trees liable to snap in a storm. The problem with distributed energy is that it can’t yet replace the grid, and it’s expensive. But the cost of a prolonged citywide blackout can run into the billions of dollars.
Few cities have less reliable electric power than New Orleans. In the region, Ida marks the sixth time that more than 200,000 households have been without power for more than four days in the past 20 years. From 2011 to 2016, the city averaged more than 2,000 sustained outages a year. For their trouble, low-income households in New Orleans spend a greater portion of their income on energy bills than in almost any city in the country.
It’s not like Entergy, the electric utility serving much of the Deep South, didn’t see this coming. Hurricanes Rita, Katrina, Ike, and Gustav all knocked out power to the city. The provider boasted of state-of-the-art infrastructure on the west bank of the Mississippi and new transmission towers that could withstand 150 mph winds. The utility even built a new natural gas plant in New Orleans East that was intended to serve the city in the event of a transmission failure—hiring actors to speak at community meetings in its defense. The towers and lines didn’t make it; the plant took a few days to get back online too, and its promise to meet the city’s needs has gone unmet.
This is not to say Entergy can’t do better. Rather, it’s to underscore that the utility, the city and state, and the legislators about to pass a massive federal infrastructure bill should all focus a little less on power transmission and a little more on local power generation.
That has not been Entergy’s strong point. Like utilities across the country, Entergy fought to limit the ability of solar-panel owners to sell their power back to the grid, a practice known as “net metering” that greatly offsets the costs of solar-panel installation. Utility companies argue that net metering sticks customers who don’t have home-power generation with the costs of maintaining the grid.
This resistance to small-scale renewable energy might be baked into the way utilities are structured. “One of the biggest things from a policy perspective is the business model that vertically integrated, investor-owned utilities have in this country, which strongly disincentivizes allowing customers to produce their own power or use storage,” said Mark Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy think tank. “Everything in the utility business model pushes against that, and as result, fewer folks are able to cost effectively install solar storage at home, or even the equivalent at campuses and community centers.”
Though Entergy made a grant to help SBP install its solar panels and battery at St. Peter Apartments, the company’s endorsement of sustainable energy has been halfhearted at best. The subsidiary Entergy New Orleans established a program to install solar power at houses in the city; it wired just four homes a month over its first 18 months of operation. The city too has moved slowly to deploy a $5.75 million grant earmarked for “microgrids” that can function independently of Entergy’s system, despite longstanding plans to invest in the idea. (For comparison’s sake, Entergy spent $210 million on the nearby gas plant.)
Solar penetration in New Orleans is pretty good, said Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, in spite of disinterest from the powers that be. What’s missing are batteries. That’s where a recovery program can help: by building up what Burke called “liability centers” where communities know they have a clean and well-lit place to gather and organize during a disaster. Those buildings could run on diesel generators, as many emergency facilities in New Orleans do. But solar arrays and batteries would be cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable in the long run.
Washington can help by prioritizing those local-level investments in the bipartisan infrastructure plan waiting to pass the House, because the weakness of the long-distance transmission system is not limited to Louisiana.
“Everywhere in the country has some version of this, what I’ll call a ‘black sky threat,’ that has the potential to take out large portions of the transmission system in one event,” said Dyson. “It’s the same problem even if the problem in California is wildfires, versus hurricanes in the Southeast. And the same general principle: locating at least some generation and storage near to customers, and reducing their reliance on what we know is a very fragile grid.” In short, the grid will fail again. But we can be ready when it does.