Newsletter: New Orleans leaders put off building microgrids, and now the people are paying the price

Advocates tried for years to build local grid resilience.

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I used to jump at the chance to report on new business models for microgrids — breakthroughs that promised local, resilient energy for any community that wanted it.

Years later, that breakthrough still hasn’t arrived. And people are suffering because of that.

It’s hard to imagine a clearer example than Hurricane Ida’s collision with New Orleans this week. We saw that Ida knocked out all eight transmission lines into the city, plunging nearly all residents into darkness.

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But a new, must-read story from Canary Media’s Jeff St. John reveals how that outcome followed local authorities’ repeated dismissals of proposals to invest in decentralized and resilient grid upgrades.

We’ve been advocating for microgrids to be built within the city for years for precisely this reason,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of New Orleans-based nonprofit the Alliance for Affordable Energy.

Back in 2016, that group proposed populating the city with pockets of locally produced and controlled power, which could function on their own if extreme weather severed ties to the outside grid. Instead, the City Council was swayed by the arguments of monopoly utility Entergy New Orleans to build a 128-megawatt gas plant at a cost to customers of $210 million.

Critics of the plant objected to its location in a flood-prone area in a part of the city predominantly home to people of color. Subsequent reporting revealed that a firm hired by Entergy paid actors to show up at a key hearing, fabricating the appearance of community enthusiasm for the massive plant.

But Entergy got to spend that money, and its gas plant went dark in the emergency. The people of New Orleans got a $210 million brick, in the words of Gregg Dixon, a cleantech entrepreneur who had proposed a cheaper, community-based alternative to the plant.

Entergy also successfully fought efforts to require more local and resilient energy in the city’s recently passed long-term clean energy requirements.

New Orleans even won millions of dollars of federal funding in 2016 to pay for community microgrids, but it has yet to build anything with that money.

Disasters have a way of reinforcing people’s prior assumptions. But there’s a clear record here:

  • Community groups asked for the chance to access local, resilient power.
  • They got denied by the people in control of grid planning.
  • Then they got stranded without power in sweltering heat and humidity when the conventional infrastructure failed.

I’ll add a caveat to that: Just because the old grid model failed doesn’t mean a distributed alternative necessarily would have worked.

  • Intense storms take a toll on that equipment too, and there’s an ongoing gap between the capacity of home battery products on the market and the needs of a typical American household. 
  • The go-to tool for prolonged backup power is still a diesel or gas generator.
  • Jeff found some examples of microgrids that did stay online, and we’re on the lookout for more examples.

The other important thing to note is that New Orleans is no outlier in its achingly slow adoption of available grid technology.

  • New York City had hardly built any microgrids years after Superstorm Sandy knocked out power. 
  • California has been slow to adopt the practice, even as its utilities intentionally shut off power to communities to reduce the odds that utility equipment will spark deadly wildfires.

The reasons behind this are various:

  • Regulators typically haven’t spelled out pathways for swift approval of microgrids.
  • Installing a microgrid at a single home or business may be doable, but linking up a whole community can’t happen without the participation of the local utility. If the utility isn’t motivated to move quickly, projects won’t move quickly.
  • Valuing resilience is tricky, especially when microgrids require a lot of money to protect against outages that may or may not happen.
  • Numerous companies now offer zero-money-down microgrid-as-a-service” products. But they still have to contend with the particular needs of each microgrid customer. These differences make it hard to standardize the product.

I could go on. The key point is that technology to isolate a building or a neighborhood and operate it independently during a grid outage is readily available and already in use around the world.

Opting not to partake of it is a choice. The days when a gas plant was considered the only option for electricity in a pinch are over. And you can’t always count on a gas plant in a pinch — as New Orleans saw firsthand.

(Article image courtesy of Entergy)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.