The sun was still shining when Marcia McWilliams lost power in her New Orleans East home. She had been cooking steaks on her stovetop on Sunday, August 29th, just before Hurricane Ida would tear through the city, and was planning to hunker down in her two-story house with her husband, elderly uncle, and granddaughter. But the blackout had arrived early. Up and down the block, neighbors ventured outside to check in with each other. “We’re all looking at each other like, ‘What’s going on?’ The sun was shining!” McWilliams says.
An aging network of power lines connects McWilliams’ home and her neighbors’ to energy sources outside of the city. Ida’s hurricane-force winds started severing those connections soon after the storm made landfall in Port Fourchon, about 60 miles south of New Orleans. When the storm reached McWilliams’ home, it brought damage to accompany the darkness. Part of the ceiling — weighed down by water — collapsed on her husband as he tried to put out bins beneath the leaks.
When skies were clear again, the blackout on McWilliams’ block lingered. McWilliams hung out on her front porch where she could catch a breeze despite the summer heat and listened to local news on her uncle’s battery-powered radio. “It was just total chaos. We’re listening to everything, and I’m just getting angrier and angrier,” she says. “That was not supposed to happen. We should not have lost electricity when we just built this power plant.”
“This power plant” was the brand new gas plant built less than six miles away from McWilliams house. She had fought against the plant’s construction for years prior, worried about higher utility bills and pollution that it would bring to the neighborhood. But in Ida’s wake, she expected the plant to fulfill a promise that had convinced New Orleans’ previous city council to approve its construction in the first place: that it could quickly restore electric service if a major storm ever wiped out power across the entire city.
The New Orleans Power Station is what’s known as a peaker plant, designed as a backup source of electricity whenever there’s a power shortage. The city gets nearly all of its electricity from gas, coal, and nuclear power plants outside of its borders. If a disastrous storm cuts New Orleans off from those outside power sources, the peaker plant could provide some locally generated electricity to tide residents over.
Crucially, the New Orleans Power Station was designed to be able to perform a “black start” — meaning it can start up on its own without needing a jolt from the grid. Ida had devastated the electricity grid, taking out all eight transmission lines that bring power into the city, creating exactly the type of scenario for the gas-fired plant to prove that it was worth its $210 million price tag.
It never achieved a black start. Residents sat for days without power during scorching heat and stifling humidity. Widespread outages lingered across New Orleans until September 9th, 11 days after Ida. Without power, most people couldn’t find relief with air conditioning, fans, or ice. More people died in New Orleans from the heat that followed Ida than perished during the height of the storm’s wrath. Outside of the city, residents in more rural areas were left in the dark for more than a week longer.
Now, New Orleans faces tough decisions ahead as Louisiana continues to recover after Ida. What should the wrecked grid look like in the future? Can it be safeguarded from another storm? Who gets to call the shots?
For McWilliams and some of her neighbors who came together to try to stop the peaker plant from being built, the answers were clear long before Ida hit. They want a shift in power: from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy and from top-down decision making to bottom-up solutions.
Louisiana has long prided itself as an energy state, although that’s historically been oil and gas. The colors of New Orleans’ beloved Saints football team are black and gold after oil, “black gold,” that made the team’s first owner rich. New Orleans East similarly got its moniker from oil-rich tycoons based in Dallas who founded the development firm New Orleans East Inc, Sarah M. Broom writes in her memoir, The Yellow House. In the late 1950s, the firm set out to tame more than 30,000 acres of swampy, mostly undeveloped land and turn it into a suburban arm of the city designed primarily for white, affluent residents.
By the 1970s, refugees arrived from Vietnam and found a new home in New Orleans East. A Catholic charity helped people escaping war resettle in low-income, subsidized apartments. Refugees coming from fishing villages in Vietnam found work in the region’s commercial fishing industry. They planted gardens ripe with vegetables and herbs common in Southeast Asia: taro, bitter melon, lemongrass, and more. The community blossomed to become one of the most concentrated populations of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam.
Green space and bigger homes attracted families like Beverly Wright’s when she was a young girl. “Christmas time came, all of my relatives from in the city who lived in shotgun doubles on raggedy streets saw coming to our house as a place of a reprieve,” says Wright, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “We thought it was the most beautiful place in the world.”
The area remained a stronghold for middle class Black families and the Vietnamese American community in the city even after an oil bust in the 1980s and subsequent white flight to nearby suburbs. Its diverse neighborhoods span an area that now makes up the largest part of New Orleans and still contains much of the city’s natural wetlands.
Dawn Hebert bought her home, a stately two-story brick house framed by four pillars out front, across the street from Wright in the 1990s. But the neighborhood hasn’t really been the same since levees failed to hold back Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters in 2005. Driving through New Orleans East, Hebert can rattle off the names of businesses lining the road that never came back after the storm. Off the I-10, there’s the dusty abandoned lot where Lake Forest Plaza used to stand, once the biggest shopping center in the state. What was once a Six Flags amusement park is now overgrown, empty ruins.
“I have been a big advocate, honestly, since Katrina,” says Hebert, who is now president of the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be in the position I’m in right now,” Hebert says of her work holding the city accountable for how it treats New Orleans East. She and other residents have grown used to having to stand up for themselves.
Adding insult to injury after the floodwaters receded, city officials proposed a plan to rebuild the city without including much of New Orleans East — instead shrinking the city’s footprint and allowing wetlands to reclaim areas deemed too flood-prone to revive.
Public outrage ultimately kept New Orleans East on the map. But the community soon became a sort of sacrifice zone for the rest of the city’s recovery. The remains of thousands of destroyed homes and buildings needed to be buried. The city picked New Orleans East to be the final resting place. A freshly dug landfill — which lacked a clay liner to prevent nasty leaks — took in about 150,000 tons of garbage in four months before residents in the nearby Vietnamese American community successfully rallied to shut it down.
About a decade later, many of the same residents found themselves defending their neighborhoods yet again from another new source of pollution: the gas-burning New Orleans Power Station, to be operated by the local energy utility Entergy. It would be built at the site of retired generators that were even more polluting. “They try to put everything bad out here for our community that is environmentally unsafe,” Hebert says. After getting calls about the power plant proposal from her neighbor Wright and other advocates, Hebert set up a meeting between the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, and other groups to let the community know about the plans.
It was the beginning of yet another standoff over the future of New Orleans East. “Oh my God, that was a whirlwind,” Hebert recalls. At city council meetings, Hebert and her friends faced apparent supporters of the power plant who showed up wearing matching orange shirts and carrying signs with phrases like, “We need power in the city.” Some were actually actors, hired to promote the plant. One of Entergy’s subcontractors had paid them between $60 to $200 each, The Lens reported, and the city ultimately fined Entergy $5 million for the fiasco. Now, attendees who want to give public comment at city council meetings have to check a box at the bottom of a speaker card to identify if they are “a paid representative or receiving any type of compensation or thing of value in exhange [sic] for speaking or attending today.”
Hebert and McWilliams had a crew of their own standing up for New Orleans East. “You had environmental injustice, you know, building these plants around African Americans, Vietnamese Americans,” says McWilliams. “We were out there fighting the fight, fighting for them, fighting for us. We don’t want this; we don’t need this. Go with more renewable energy: wind and solar!”
Renewable energy would carry a few benefits for the area: it would improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that fuel stronger storms. On top of that, critics of the plant believed there were better ways to strengthen the existing power grid than building a new fossil-fueled power plant. Aging power lines, which Entergy was previously fined for poorly maintaining, are an especially easy target for storms. So if the city really wanted to harden the grid, it ought to upgrade and fortify those lines, experts said. But the way utility regulation works in the US generally incentivizes companies to spend more money on new capital investments in things like new power plants rather than on maintenance costs for upgrading old power lines.
“Basically, we did not need the plant. And why are you paying for something that we don’t need? It’s just crazy,” says Hebert.
This time, she and other New Orleans East advocates lost the battle. Entergy successfully sold the plant as a way to make the grid more dependable in times of crisis. “It will provide a reliable local source of power generation in Orleans Parish to help stabilize the grid and keep the lights on,” then-president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans Charles Rice wrote in an opinion arguing for the new plant on Nola.com in 2017.
City council approved the plant in 2018, and it came online last year.
Sitting in the second row of city council chambers on September 22nd, Entergy New Orleans CEO Deanna Rodriguez spoke softly with colleagues. “I’m scared,” she told one as she sat in the audience waiting for her turn to come forward before the city council.
Had she seen the latest investigation by ProPublica, the colleague asked her. “Is it on us? Propaganda?” Rodriguez responded, before telling him she didn’t want to know more about it until after taking the stand. The story, written in partnership with NPR, had published that morning with the headline, “Entergy Resisted Upgrading New Orleans’ Power Grid. When Ida Hit, Residents Paid the Price.”
The storm took out every transmission line the city relies on to bring in electricity. During the ensuing power outages, temperatures soared into the nineties while lingering humidity made things even more stifling. With nearly all of Southeast Louisiana without power, many residents couldn’t find air conditioning. The Orleans Parish coroner’s office attributed nine of the 14 casualties tied to Ida to “Excessive heat during an extended power outage.” That included 73-year-old Iley Joseph, who was found dead in his sweltering home four days after the storm’s landfall. Sixty-five-year-old Laura Bergerol was similarly found dead inside her home by a neighbor a full seven days after the storm had passed.
“Please stop acting like you’re the victim. You are the goliath. You are a powerful Fortune 500 company with all the resources in the world, with record profits last year of $1.4 billion,” councilwoman Helena Morena said to Entergy officials as she opened up a meeting of the city council’s Utility, Cable, Telecommunications, and Technology Committee.
Most utilities are regulated at the state level; New Orleans is the only city in the US where the city council is responsible for regulating an investor-owned energy utility while there is already another energy regulator at the state level. The council oversees Entergy New Orleans, a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation, which provides power across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. It gives the council unique power to be responsive to residents’ needs, although the council has been criticized in the past for being ill-equipped to regulate Entergy. With elections coming up, members seeking reelection would soon have to answer to voters.
That day, the city council would vote on measures that would launch investigations into the outages, conduct a management audit of Entergy, and commission a study on potentially ending Entergy’s monopoly in the city’s energy market. Entergy had been pressuring them to let up.
The day before the meeting, Entergy New Orleans released a statement with suggestions for the city’s energy future if it no longer wanted the subsidiary to provide everyone’s power: Entergy New Orleans could merge with Entergy Louisiana, sell the utility, or spin off the business to create a standalone company. Or the city could create a municipally-run utility instead. It was a move that some people in the energy business described as a dare or a temper tantrum in response to city council’s scrutiny. Councilwoman Moreno called it a “ploy” for the utility to slip through city council’s fingers and find a friendlier regulator.
“If you hear my voice shake just a little bit, it’s because I’m nervous,” Rodriguez said before she started her testimony before city council. Many of the questions she faced drilled down to one thing: what exactly did the $210 million power station actually do after Ida? Residents are paying for the cost of the new plant with higher utility bills, even if it didn’t do what they thought it would do in a catastrophe.
Rather than perform a black start at the power station, the quicker and safer way to restore power was to get one of the transmission lines back online, Rodriguez said. With a jolt of power from the transmission line, the plant then fired up and helped distribute some electricity throughout the city.
The power plant hadn’t prevented extended blackouts, though. Some people — including Dawn Hebert — got power back within two days, while others waited 10 or more days. Even after firing up, the plant wasn’t able to get electricity to places where distribution lines were still down. The power station wasn’t designed to generate enough power for the entire city. Instead, it had capacity to meet just under 12 percent of the city’s needs, and the power first flowed to critical infrastructure like hospitals after Ida passed through.
“New Orleans Power Station did what it was designed to do during and following the storm,” Entergy said to TechToSee in an email. The utility company referred to residents’ expectation that the plant would prevent outages as “an unfortunate misunderstanding influenced by inaccurate reporting.” Power plants are designed to shut down when lines connecting them to customers are damaged or destroyed, it said.
Even as power started to come back on, Entergy’s outage maps had glitches. They showed that power was restored in McWilliams’ area even though it wasn’t — seeing the alerts, some residents planned to check out of hotels where they had taken shelter and return. McWilliams spent the days afterward fielding calls from neighbors who had evacuated, telling them it still wasn’t safe to come back. “No, we do not have electricity, do not come back yet,” McWilliams told them. She didn’t get electricity back in her home until a week after the storm.
Rodriguez carefully answered questions from council members, prefacing by saying that a class action lawsuit filed against the utility by customers limited how much she could share. When city council finished asking questions, it was time for public comment. As the first speaker took to the podium, Rodriguez and other representatives from Entergy got up from their hot seats in the front of the chambers and walked out of the room.
The majority of comments were made online, which city council began accepting during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were too many to get through, so a designated speaker read as many as they could in 20 minutes. One woman described riding out the outages with her four-year-old child. “I tried my best to be cheerful and positive for my first real experience with a hurricane, being eight and a half months pregnant made it nearly impossible to maintain good cheer in the unmitigated late summer heat,” she shared.
When it was her turn, Hebert stepped up to the podium in a sky blue blouse over white pants and addressed the elephant that was not in the room. “I got to say, the fact that all of them [from Entergy] left means I don’t think they care too much,” Hebert said. “Entergy New Orleans should be held accountable, and changes that should be made are in your control,” she said to the council members.
City council members, responding to Hebert and other speakers, decided to call Entergy representatives back into the room. They returned about 45 minutes after leaving, claiming to have been watching from outside.
In New Orleans East, just seven miles of backroads and highway separate the post-Katrina landfill, gas plant, and the potential beginnings of a clean energy future. Several months after the gas peaker plant came online in New Orleans, Entergy opened a new solar farm just down the street. It’s at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, which the agency calls “America’s Rocket Factory.”
Also nearby is the nation’s only private testing facility for cutting-edge offshore wind turbine blade technology, according to the regional economic development organization Greater New Orleans, Inc. The Biden Administration recently moved to open up the Gulf of Mexico to offshore wind, which some Louisiana business leaders and lawmakers see as a big moneymaker for the state in the future.
Policymakers have begun to accept a difficult truth. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are supercharging the weather. Hurricanes pack bigger punches than they did in the past. Heatwaves are becoming more unbearable, too. And rising sea levels are eating up the state’s coastlines. Together, these disasters will deal repeated, worsening blows to residents and the electricity grid. The only way to stop or even slow that trend is to tackle climate change, which requires slashing the pollution that comes from coal, oil, and gas. And if Louisiana wants to stay an “energy state,” it will have to find cleaner sources.
Governor John Bel Edwards signed an executive order last year setting a goal for the state to cut or cancel out all of its planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In May, the New Orleans City Council passed a new energy standard that pushes Entergy to get all its electricity from “clean” sources by the same date. Entergy says it wants to increase its reliance on renewable energy to meet a company goal of reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 — keeping it in line with the state’s targets.
It might sound like a short timeline for an energy state to kick its fossil fuel habit, but the deadline falls in line with what research has found is necessary globally to keep temperatures from rising to a point at which human civilization would struggle to adapt. The Biden administration is similarly trying to set the US on course to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. On the way there, Biden envisions a “100 percent” clean power grid by 2035. So what plays out in New Orleans is a microcosm for the energy transition that’s ahead for other oil and gas towns and the US as a whole.
Slowing down climate change is a global problem. But adapting to changes that are already here — like stronger storms — will require local solutions. That’s especially true for electricity grids like New Orleans’, prone to climate-fueled disasters. Nearly all of the city’s electricity comes from somewhere else, some of it sourced from generators as far away as Mississippi and Arkansas. That’s typical of how electricity grids work today. Giant fossil-fueled power plants and nuclear reactors generate enough power for expansive areas. Electricity from the plants zips along transmission lines, which transport power across long distances at high voltages. The electricity makes a pit stop at a substation near its final destination, sometimes hundreds of miles from the power plant, where the voltage is tamped down so that it’s safer to move through neighborhoods via local distribution lines.
Each of those points — power plant, transmission line, substation, distribution line — could be vulnerable to a disaster like Ida. A storm only needs to take out one link in the chain to cut off power to many communities.
Shrinking down the grid and generating power locally is one way to minimize those vulnerabilities. In fact, there’s already a blueprint for how that could work. In 2017, the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratories worked with the City to come up with a plan for how it could make the energy system more resilient to future hurricanes. That research identified advanced microgrids as one potential solution.
“We cannot be thinking about the electric system in that linear way anymore,” says Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the local consumer advocacy group Alliance for Affordable Energy. “Think about the whole of the system, rather than thinking about the way the system was built 120 years ago.”
Here’s how advanced microgrids might work: First of all, energy is generated locally. That can bypass one potential weak point — transmission lines that bring power in from faraway places. Solar panels, in particular, are easy to spread around the city and still tie together so that they can work in tandem. They could be clustered together in a solar farm, like the one at the NASA facility. Or they could be spread across homes and buildings throughout the city. More than 90 percent of rooftops in the city of New Orleans are well-suited for solar generation, according to one Google analysis.
There was already a boom in residential solar after Katrina, thanks to post-storm tax incentives. The city ranked 14th in the nation for the most solar capacity installed per capita in 2020, ahead of sunny Los Angeles. But to be helpful in a crisis, panels will also need to be paired with batteries that can store extra juice for a rainy day. And local distribution lines will also need to be sturdy enough to keep all those solar panels and batteries connected to each other.
If disaster strikes, especially if it knocks out other parts of the larger grid, an advanced microgrid can automatically cut itself off and act as a sort of energy island. Outfitted with an advanced microgrid, New Orleans East would be one area that’s particularly well-suited to act as a “resilience node,” according to the Sandia analysis. That’s where a relatively small amount of backup generation could power a high concentration of critical infrastructure serving a large population.
“We’ve been urging Entergy to look at things like microgrids,” Burke says. “Instead, all the money that Entergy has been spending is on their gas infrastructure.”
Entergy tells TechToSee that it spent $3.9 billion on its transmission and distribution systems between 2016 and 2020. “It is important to invest in generation, transmission, and distribution, and Entergy has no financial incentive to prefer one over another,” Entergy said to TechToSee in an email. “Physics dictates how we invest to keep the system reliable and keep the lights on.”
On an even smaller scale, solar power and batteries can benefit individual homes. That’s how Devin De Wulf’s household kept the lights on during and after Ida. His family weathered the blackout with his refrigerator, ice machine, and fans. He avoided using the central air conditioning because that would have taken up too much power, but he’s since bought a small window AC unit that he can plug in and power on with the batteries the next time a storm knocks power out.
DeWulf, who founded nonprofit organizations that bring food to essential workers, musicians, and artists during the pandemic, helped out his neighbors with his solar system. He set out a power strip on his porch so that others could charge their phones or other devices. And he ran an extension cord to a neighbor two doors down so that he could run his oxygen machine.
“Nobody cares about us, but us,” DeWulf tells TechToSee. “We have to be the first responders.”
DeWulf’s next project is an initiative to get solar and batteries to restaurants around the city so that they can do the same thing for their communities.
In the absence of a disaster, microgrids can still function as part of the larger grid system that connects the rest of Louisiana and nearby states. When the larger grid is up and running, a household can sell its excess solar power back to the utility to lower its bills.
That bi-directional flow of power is crucial for any future grid that’s built on more renewable energy. It’s another reason why Burke and other advocates have called for more investment in upgraded transmission lines. Sunshine and wind gusts are intermittent sources of energy — they’re renewable, but they can only be tapped at certain times. Luckily, they can also fill in for each other. When the sun is shining brightly on the Gulf Coast, the region can send its solar energy up to the colder midwest. Midwestern states and Texas, where a lot of wind energy is generated, can, in turn, send their renewable energy down in exchange.
Instead of the linear grid system where electricity flows in one direction from polluting generators, it’s a system built on two-way communication. And even though utility scale wind and solar farms (paired with batteries and other power sources like hydroelectricity) will be needed to meet everyone’s electricity needs, a single home solar system can still contribute when its power is needed.
Grids in other climate-stressed places are already evolving with the help of renewable energy. In California, where more intense wildfire seasons have sparked blackouts, solar panels and batteries spread across apartment buildings work together as a virtual power plant. There are similar projects in Utah and Arizona. Even the batteries in electric vehicles could one day be tied together to provide backup power in disaster scenarios.
Dawn Hebert left New Orleans before Hurricane Ida hit, 16 years to the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall. If her home got as much damage from Ida as it did during Katrina, she wasn’t going back, she told herself. Hebert had evacuated then, too, and came back to find that her home had flooded with six feet of water. “The furniture must have just been flowing from room to room,” she says. Even the refrigerator and heavy china cabinet were knocked over.
“That’s why I don’t even have a living room setting anymore,” she says. “Because it’s like — what’s the point?” She has two plush chairs facing each other next to a large window looking out onto the front yard. There’s a crib and play mat for a grandson she babysits during the day now that she’s retired from working at the post office. But the room is relatively sparse when it comes to furniture.
Thankfully, after coming home to New Orleans East after riding out the storm in Mississippi, Hebert saw little damage to her house in comparison to the destruction during Katrina. While levees failed catastrophically during Katrina, they held up this time. It was a testament to how preparing infrastructure for a more brutal future can prevent a lot of pain.
There’s still pain that’s tangible in the community. “New Orleans East is this place that has this very palpable complex trauma that’s alive because of the environmental racism,” says Jacqueline Thanh, executive director of VAYLA-NO, a nonprofit born out of a Vietnamese American community-led campaign to stop the landfill post-Katrina. Residents have seen their homes flooded, nearly wiped off New Orleans’ map, saddled with garbage and pollution, and then left in the dark after Ida. For refugees, all of that came after being pushed from their homes in Vietnam by war.
“Looking at New Orleans, I worry about its survival for people of color,” Wright tells TechToSee a couple weeks after Ida. “I don’t worry about its survival for rich white people. This will always be their playground. But I worry about the indigenous population and people of color and whether or not we could weather the storm.” Just before Ida hit, Wright had finally been able to finish repairing damage hurricane Katrina had inflicted on her mother’s house. Luckily, the home was mostly spared from Ida’s wrath.
Whenever top-down systems and infrastructure failed them, New Orleans East residents found ways to persist. There’s certainly talk, especially among younger residents, of picking up and leaving. But community advocates see a future worth fighting for. “Imagine the future for New Orleans East where young people can thrive — not just survive it and leave it,” Thanh says.
Structures that have failed in the past can be strengthened so that it isn’t vulnerable communities’ resilience that’s so harshly tested when the next disaster hits. Instead of a gas-fired power plant in their neighborhood, McWilliams and other advocates want to see more solar panels. And after decades of being treated as an afterthought or a dumping ground, they see New Orleans East leading the way to a more sustainable future.
As the days lingered on without power after Ida, McWilliams coped with the heat with the help of an ice pack that her granddaughter, a nurse, was eventually able to bring to her. “Nana, we just need to move away,” McWilliams recalls her granddaughter once saying to her. “I said, ‘Well baby, it’s not as simple as that. You can’t run from Mother Nature.”