New Orleans has a new clean energy standard. Now it wants a more modern transmission grid

After New Orleans passed the first clean energy standard in the Gulf South, a city leader is pushing for a more renewable-friendly and reliable grid.

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Last month, the New Orleans City Council joined a majority of states across the country in passing some form of policy supporting clean energy growth. One of only two cities across the country that has authority to regulate the local investor-owned utility that serves it, New Orleans stands at the forefront of a rising sentiment that its home state, long dominated by the oil and gas industry, needs to do more to address climate change.

The landmark resolution, called the Renewable and Clean Portfolio Standard (RCPS), requires utility Entergy New Orleans to achieve a portfolio of 100 percent clean energy by 2050. It’s the culmination of a more than two-year effort from local advocacy groups and the city council.

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This local clean energy action was quickly followed by equally substantial action for the Gulf South in the domain of regional grid planning. The week after the passage of the RCPS, New Orleans Utility Committee Chair Helena Moreno submitted a letter of support to John Bear, president of the Midcontinent Independent Service Operator (MISO), backing the grid operator’s Long Range Transmission Planning effort. The letter highlights the need to make the bulk power system stronger, more reliable and better able to meet the climate goals of the city council and other states within MISO’s footprint.

The reliability of the future grid is a major component of MISO’s transmission planning effort, as is adapting to public policies and corporate renewable energy goals that are driving the rapid expansion of renewable energy.

The twin themes of reliability and decarbonization have loomed large during Helena Moreno’s tenure as chair of the city council’s Utility, Cable, Telecommunications and Technology Committee. Within the span of a few months in 2019, the order to open rulemaking for a renewable portfolio standard was followed by the city council imposing a hefty fine on Entergy New Orleans for continued reliability issues on its distribution network.

Image credit: MISO

Moreno’s concerns about grid reliability extend to the transmission system as well. The need for a more reliable transmission grid was made clear during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021. During this weather event, the MISO South subregion, comprising Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, were hit with four out of the five total load shed events — that is, rolling blackouts — initiated by MISO on the evening of February 16 to prevent the collapse of a large portion of its system. One of these events in New Orleans resulted in power outages affecting businesses, residents and even water infrastructure throughout the city. The city council has initiated an investigation into the event, including the actions of the city’s utility, Entergy New Orleans, which accidentally shed over three times the amount of load requested by MISO.

Simon Mahan of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, a long-time advocate for transmission supporting a more resilient system in the South, applauded the move by Moreno.

The Gulf South has had more than its fair share of extreme weather events, power outages and resulting high electric bills. We need a more resilient transmission system to protect our communities for today while planning for a clean energy future,” he said. Moreno’s support of MISO’s long-range transmission process is a big step in the right direction for the region.”

Image credit: MISO

Grid operators like MISO have always placed system reliability as a top priority, as outlined in the recently released report, MISO’s Response to the Reliability Imperative. But the processes used to identify and invest in new transmission capacity often categorize reliability and economic imperatives in separate silos, rather than considering them in a holistic manner.

The contrast between the impacts of Winter Storm Uri on MISO South, versus the far less severe impacts on the much larger MISO North region, emphasizes the reliability case for a stronger connection between the two subregions. February’s winter storm only forced one outage in MISO North, but four events were called in MISO South, before ensuing power plant outages caused an additional 1 gigawatt to be shed.

It’s possible that a 765-kilovolt transmission line to connect the two regions could have supported the South during the freeze. Such a line was part of an initial MISO study of potential grid projects, as outlined in a presentation at a MISO Planning Advisory Committee meeting in March.

Image credit: MISO

According to MISO’s 2021 Arctic Event Report released last month, increased power flows from north to south could have relieved power plants in the U.S. South and prevented the rolling outages of Feb. 16. Grid operators tried to increase power flows across the sole transmission connection between the two regions. However, the lack of an alternative second connection, along with overloaded connections in neighboring systems, prevented that power from being able to relieve the South’s problems. Increasing capacity between subregions could be critical to avoiding similar issues like these events in the future.

Regional linkages of this kind are also becoming more important in supporting the growth of renewable energy in the South. MISO North is already a hotbed of wind power, but new wind projects have been dropping out of its interconnection queue, due in part to developers being asked to bear the costs of grid upgrades that aren’t being supported by MISO’s planning processes. At the same time, data collected by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable FERC Project indicates that proposed renewable projects in MISO South have also been struggling to achieve interconnection for many of the same reasons.

These interconnection challenges aren’t limited to MISO. The adjacent territory of grid operator Southwest Power Pool also expects to see much more renewable energy being incorporated into its system in the South. Although most of Louisiana falls within MISO territory, the northwestern portion in American Electric Power subsidiary Swepco’s territory is part of the Southwest Power Pool. A recent Swepco solicitation for 3.5 gigawatts of renewables — an unprecedented size for the region, and significant for any utility — may offer a glimpse into the kind of announcements coming from utilities in the MISO South region that will require accompanying transmission infrastructure in coming years.

In the past year, a shift in attitudes around renewable energy and climate change has been underway in Louisiana,” said Brent Newman, deputy director of Audubon Louisiana. Elected officials have recognized the importance of proactive action on climate action in Louisiana and taken steps to position the state for a more resilient future,” he said.

Those elected officials include Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who last year signed an executive order to establish a state Climate Initiatives Task Force setting a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 for the state. He also formally requested that the U.S. Department of Interior, which regulates energy development in offshore waters, establish an Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Task Force to assess the potential of offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico.

These state actions are not policy mandates like the renewable portfolio standard passed in New Orleans. But they signal a major shift in thinking for a state long wedded to the fossil fuel industry. Support for MISO’s planning processes from leaders such as Moreno could play a critical role in achieving climate targets for the state.

(Article image coursesy of Kvnga)

Andy Kowalczyk is a consultant working on clean energy issues within the MISO footprint as well as local and state utility regulatory issues throughout MISO South.