Those near-daily thunderstorms and downpours with intense lightning and high winds this year so regularly knock out electricity that state regulators want Entergy, the privately owned utility company that services half of Louisiana, to explain why.
Entergy reports almost 1 million instances in which homes and businesses statewide lost power during the first six months of 2015 — a 14 percent increase from the same time period last year. But those statistics pale in comparison to Baton Rouge, which has seen a 51 percent increase in what’s officially called “customer interruptions” over the same time period, according to Entergy Louisiana.
One Baton Rouge resident complained Thursday to the Louisiana Public Service Commission that his home had 12 outages — some lasting nine hours — over the previous eight days. Another resident who lives on Stanford Avenue near LSU lost all the food in his refrigerator and freezer in the week leading to the Fourth of July holiday and previously had lost everything when the lights went out for four days in April.
“Entergy has allowed this area to be like a Third World country,” another Baton Rouge resident complained to the PSC in a recorded criticism from June 30.
The number and intensity of storms this spring ultimately are responsible for the outages, said Dennis P. Dawsey, the Entergy vice president in charge of keeping the lights on for Entergy’s 1.2 million Louisiana customers.
Though probably not very comforting to someone who has lost power, Dawsey points out that Entergy ranks second in reliability compared to the 13 other large utility companies in the South.
But this spring has taxed the utility company. Powerful lightning is striking equipment more frequently than in the past; and higher winds are knocking limbs into lines, particularly in tree-covered Baton Rouge; and way above-average rainfall — 8 inches more statewide — has saturated the ground and caused trees to fall, Dawsey said.
But Scott Angelle, the PSC commissioner representing much of Baton Rouge, as well as Acadiana, said he isn’t buying that excuse. True, south Louisiana has grown quickly and often haphazardly, he said, but given its history, frequent and intense storms should come as no surprise.
“This is south Louisiana. That’s the way it is here. The idea that it’s all because of an abnormal number of storms just doesn’t get it for me,” Angelle said in an interview Friday.
Angelle, who is running for governor, is drafting an official request to investigate the number of Entergy’s outages. Three of the PSC’s five elected members would have to approve to launch the investigation.
“There’s no question, at least in my mind, that there is a vegetation issue in the Baton Rouge area,” Angelle said.
One of his constituents in Baton Rouge’s Pollard Estates subdivision complained to the PSC on June 25 that, “The lines behind our property pass through a wooded section that Entergy has allowed to become so overgrown with trees and bushes that they can no longer access the lines in order to make repairs.”
Dawsey said Entergy is on it.
This week the utility company is doubling the number — 35 to 70 — of contractors hired to clear vegetation from the lines, Dawsey said. Additionally, company officials are lining up meetings with homeowner associations.
Of the 121,458 outages in Baton Rouge from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2015, Dawsey said, the statistics show the percentage of outages caused by vegetation getting tangled in the lines is up by 97 percent this year when compared to last year. Most of those instances were trees outside Entergy’s right of way falling onto power lines, he said.
Entergy trims trees and clears its power circuits of vegetation following a set schedule, every 4.6 years across the state and every four years in Baton Rouge, Dawsey said.
Statewide, Entergy is spending $22 million this year on its tree trimming program. That’s up from the $20 million spent in 2014 but a little less than what was spent in 2013, Dawsey said.
Entergy monitors outages, charting when, where and the circumstances. If the company finds a particular circuit is getting knocked out a lot, Dawsey says he sends in crews to trim vegetation, regardless of when the work is regularly scheduled.
But cutting limbs and trimming vegetation off power lines creates its own set of worries.
“We do often have constituents that are upset and complain when utilities cut trees or perhaps trim trees more than constituents desire and it affects the aesthetics of their property,” PSC Chairman Clyde Holloway, of Forest Hill, said last week. “It is a difficult balancing act for the guys on the ground maintaining the lines.”
Eric Troutman, head of the Garden District Civic Association, said Friday he received dozens of emails from neighbors complaining about loss of electricity, particularly during the past two months. The century-old neighborhood in Mid City Baton Rouge has an aging system dependent on lines threading through a thick canopy of oak trees.
“It doesn’t require severe weather for us to lose power,” Troutman said.
On Thursday, Entergy sent a lineman out to walk the streets and within a few hours found three instances of limbs on the power lines. Entergy’s solution is to trim the trees.
“We don’t want to destroy these beautiful trees that make the Garden District so special,” Troutman said. “But at the same time, we understand how they impact the entire neighborhood getting power.”
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