Within a two–month period this year, Louisianans were pummeled by three hurricanes: Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, and Hurricanes Delta and Zeta, both Category 2 storms. After each disaster, the vulnerability of Louisiana’s energy infrastructure was abundantly clear. Combined, over 1,100,000 electric customers in Louisiana lost power. In some cases, power restoration efforts took weeks. Many households didn’t have power restored for four weeks after Hurricane Laura – just in time for Hurricane Delta to take it out again.
Power Outages and Public Health
The health implications of power outages, even short-term ones, can be profound. Damage caused by Hurricane Laura left tens of thousands of people without drinkable water. In New Orleans, 73 sewage stations were inoperable due to outages after Hurricane Zeta. In order to avoid an overload, which could have disastrous public health and environmental consequences, residents were asked to reduce their water use.
For medically vulnerable individuals, such as those reliant on electricity for medical equipment, a power outage can be life-threatening. After Hurricane Delta, one woman stated that her mother, who relied on electricity-dependent medical devices, had to live without power for weeks before securing a generator for her devices.
Many households had the same reflex. Gas generators flew off shelves as temperatures climbed above 100 degrees and people were desperate for cooling (at least seven people died from heat-related illness post Hurricane Laura). Unfortunately, gas generators come with their own health risks. Almost half of the deaths resulting from Hurricane Laura were carbon monoxide poisonings resulting from improper generator use.
Rebuilding Louisiana’s Energy Infrastructure
Hurricane Laura, the first major hurricane to hit Louisiana this hurricane season, decimated the power grid. Entergy, the largest utility serving Louisiana, reported that Laura resulted in some of the most severe damage to energy infrastructure that the utility has ever experienced; 14,000 distribution poles, 4,800 transformers, and 300 substations were destroyed. Some areas required an entire rebuild of their energy system. Entergy estimated total repair costs for this storm alone will exceed $1.2 billion.
Entergy’s plan has been, and continues to be, to rebuild Louisiana’s energy infrastructure back to what it was prior to whatever most recent storm destroyed it. Without incorporating innovative new technologies into the rebuild plan, the cycle of destroy and repair will continue to leave Louisianans with the same outdated, vulnerable energy infrastructure hurricane season after hurricane season.
Instead, Entergy and state and local leaders must collaborate on new and innovative strategies to rebuild better. There are a multitude of resilient and renewable power opportunities that can be incorporated to improve grid reliability and better prepare and support communities in the event of an outage, including:
- Invest in Virtual Power Plants: Instead of relying on centralized, polluting fossil-fuel reliant power plants, utilities across the country are beginning to tap into networks of solar+storage devices in homes and businesses to create virtual power plants (VPP). These VPPs can deliver many of the same services as traditional power plants but they’re powered by distributed resources, such as solar and battery storage. In addition to providing backup power and energy resilience to individual residences and community facilities, utilities can access the network of batteries as a demand response resource and to deliver additional grid benefits. The VPP model utilized by Green Mountain Power, the largest utility in Vermont, has saved Vermont ratepayers millions of dollars and kept the lights on for hundreds of participants when severe weather results in widespread power outages. Solar resources would of course be used year-round, not just in times of crisis, adding further to the realized benefits for customers and utilities.
- Prepare Community Institutions: In the event of a disaster, residents seek shelter in institutions they trust. Across the Gulf Coast, over a million people were evacuated from their homes during Hurricane Laura. Many sought shelter at local churches, community centers, designated hurricane shelters, and even hotels. States and utilities can implement incentive programs to support solar+storage development at these critical community facilities, especially those serving low-to-moderate income communities. In doing so, community facilities are empowered to continue providing services to their members in the event of an outage and utilities can benefit from grid services during regular operations (as outlined in the VPP bullet above). The California Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) is one example for how battery storage incentives can be designed to serve the residents most vulnerable to disaster-related power outages.
- Prioritize Environmental Justice Communities: Environmental justice communities are often served by more vulnerable power systems and suffer disproportionate impacts in the event of a disaster, including more severe and longer duration power outages. Utility investments in renewable and resilient energy resources can and should be focused in environmental justice communities. Incentive programs should also be tailored to meet the needs of these communities, such as providing higher incentive rates to offset barriers such as a lack of financing options for lower-income residents and community organizations.
Developing a Resilient Power Plan
The 2016 Entergy Resilience Plan relies heavily on fossil-fuel powered infrastructure, highlights one-off solar projects, and does not include any mention of battery storage technologies. Louisiana deserves a more comprehensive utility plan for expanding resilient power (solar and battery storage) resources in the state, one that emphasizes how to include these technologies in post-disaster rebuild efforts. The plan should be holistic and include not only utility-owned and operated resources, but also pathways for residential, commercial, and nonprofit institutions to participate.
Louisiana’s Governor, John Bel Edwards, created a state-wide Climate Initiatives Task Force in August of this year. The mission of this task force is to consider ways to mitigate climate impacts by significantly reducing carbon emissions across the state’s sectors. The Climate Task Force should also think and plan broadly for adaptations to the realities climate change is already exacting on the state. A more distributed and flexible energy system would be a good start.
In order to ensure that the resulting plan is representative of the interests of all Louisianans, the effort should be led by local leadership, with utility participation and input from trusted local and regional energy leaders. Developing a coalition of diverse stakeholders will ensure that the plan includes:
- Realistic and measurable deliverables;
- Representation of disadvantaged, environmental justice, and low-income communities; and
- Regional and national resilient power references, such as solar+storage applications used by other states and utilities
Every year, we watch the growing repercussions of a longer and more severe hurricane season than the last. Louisianans deserve an energy grid that doesn’t need to be rebuilt from the ground-up after disaster strikes. While there is no single silver bullet solution, developing a resilient power plan for Louisiana would be a good place to start in holding utilities accountable to their customers.
Grid modernization efforts that include renewable and resilient power technologies need to be incorporated into post-hurricane rebuild efforts to ensure that the grid isn’t just rebuilt but rebuilt better for all Louisianans.