After a tornado ripped through New Orleans East in February and caused extensive damage, Entergy dispatched a crew of workers to comb through wreckage and try to determine if the utility company could have done more to prevent some of the thousands of power outages that resulted.
A decade from now, Entergy Corp. Chairman and CEO Leo Denault believes, advances in technology, such as the millions of advanced electrical meters his company plans to roll out in New Orleans and elsewhere, as well as a new power plant that it has proposed building in the city, will limit lengthy power disruptions after storms, if not eliminate them entirely.
"It'll be increments over time," said Denault, who took over the top job at New Orleans' only Fortune 500 company in 2013. "It's aspirational, but I think it's possible."
Denault knows his customers want lower bills and greater reliability. As he looks into the future, he thinks the utility giant can do something about both.
To that end, Entergy's local subsidiaries have committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on newer, more efficient gas-burning power plants, such as a $665 million, 560-megawatt facility in Westwego, in Jefferson Parish, that began operating in late 2014. (One megawatt is enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.)
In St. Charles Parish, work is underway on an $869 million, 980-megawatt plant that's expected to be up and running by 2019. And last month, Entergy won state approval to build an $872 million gas-burning power plant near Lake Charles. The 994-megawatt facility is slated to be in service by 2020.
Additionally, Entergy announced this year that it will spend $30 million on upgrades to New Orleans' electric power transmission grid — including replacing utility poles and reworking electrical circuits — which should help improve local reliability.
But the new advanced metering equipment could offer customers the most tangible benefits. The equipment can provide a digital, two-way link between the utility and its customers. It could help usher in new and expanded services and allow consumers to monitor their energy usage in real time and make adjustments if needed to limit their usage and thus their bills.
"If you're on a budget, how important would that be? Particularly going into the summer, if you only want to spend $75 a month on your bill and you can track (your spending) a week and a half in and find, 'I'm $50 into my $75,' you're able to take some action," Denault said. "Today, you don't have that control. That's just some of what we can do."
The equipment, which some local activists have long called for, will also bring New Orleans and the rest of Entergy's customers in the state in line with an estimated 90 million U.S. households that are projected to have the meters by 2020.
If power is disrupted, Entergy says, the new meters will let its technicians diagnose and trouble-shoot issues more quickly and efficiently. Coupled with transmission line upgrades and other moves to harden its infrastructure, like replacing aging utility poles, Entergy says the upgrades will make its grid more storm-resistant.
Entergy Corp. owns and operates power plants with roughly 30,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity. It provides power to 2.9 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas through separate subsidiaries.
Entergy New Orleans provides electricity to more than 198,000 customers in Orleans Parish. Entergy Louisiana supplies electricity to more than 1 million customers elsewhere in the state, including the Baton Rouge area.
Progress costs money
The new smart meters don't come cheap. The equipment likely will cost about $75 million to deploy in New Orleans, a process that could begin in 2019.
That cost probably will be borne by customers over several years.
Elsewhere across the state, Entergy Louisiana plans to spend about $384 million to deploy the new equipment. But the utility expects that the meters will provide benefits worth an estimated $574 million, offsetting the costs.
Pending approval from the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which is set to hear the case Monday in Baton Rouge, Entergy Louisiana has laid out a schedule for how its customers will pay for the equipment.
Starting in 2019, Entergy Louisiana customers will see a monthly charge of $2.22 on their electricity bills, with an additional 49 cents for gas customers. The monthly charges will climb to $2.91 and 80 cents a month in 2021 before gradually disappearing by 2036 for electricity customers and by 2030 for gas customers.
Denault outlined his approach in a letter this year to Entergy's stakeholders. He described the utility's tilt toward new, emerging technologies to help prevent outages before they happen. "Asking 'What if?' represents a new way of thinking at Entergy," he wrote.
"We need to figure a lot of that stuff out, and then we'll be able to make your experience better at your home," Denault said in a recent interview from his office in Entergy Corp.'s headquarters on Loyola Avenue. "That's exciting. I'm not — that's not the world I come from. I know that's the world we need to get to, so we're going to need to bring in some people who have that skill."
Across the U.S., natural gas-fired power plants made up 34 percent of total utility-scale electricity generation in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That figure is expected to fall to less than 32 percent this year and next year, thanks to higher expected fuel prices.
In recent years, environmentalists and others have increased pressure on U.S. power providers to invest in renewable resources. The International Energy Agency last year projected that worldwide power generation from renewable resources would reach 37 percent by 2040, up from 23 percent at the time, if nations follow through on their commitments under the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Last year, Entergy flipped the switch on more than 4,200 solar panels in a once-empty plot of land near Chef Menteur Highway. The pilot project, billed as the city's first large-scale effort to produce solar power, can generate enough electricity to power about 160 homes.
Already, some local residents are calling for more.
Entergy New Orleans has committed to adding up to 100 megawatts of renewable energy resources in the company's generation mix.
This year, the utility selected three proposals for a total of about 45 megawatts, including one project that calls for installing rooftop solar panel systems on buildings in the city and connecting them to the distribution grid.
Pressing for renewables
Lawyer Clint Vince, for decades the City Council's chief legal adviser on regulating Entergy, said the city has pressed the company to "invest more in renewables" and energy-efficiency measures such as the smart meters.
"They are now at a little bit of back-and-forth on that, but moving in the direction we're suggesting," he added.
Entergy also plans to deploy more renewable resources elsewhere in the company's service area. "It just fits in our portfolio, like nuclear, like natural gas, like energy efficiency, which is another area that we need to branch out more," Denault said.
Facing strong opposition from some community groups, Entergy New Orleans on Thursday offered a scaled-back alternative to its proposed new gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East, in addition to reaffirming its interest in building the larger facility.
Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a local watchdog group, said she isn't convinced that a new power plant is needed in Orleans Parish.
"Once we have better control of the energy usage in our city, that reduces the peak usage and more than that, it reduces those reliability concerns that Entergy had been talking about," she said.
But it's the roll-out of the smart meters that has most excited both utility executives and environmentalists.
Such smart grid technology is hardly new. By late 2015, electric companies had installed 65 million smart meters, accounting for more than half of U.S. households, according to a report last year by the Edison Foundation's Institute for Electric Innovation.
That tally was projected to reach 70 million by the end of 2016 and 90 million by 2020. Already, more than 30 utilities in the U.S. have deployed the equipment.
Cleco, which provides electricity on the north shore, distributed smart meters to its roughly 285,000 customers in Louisiana beginning in 2012. The meters, which cost almost $62 million, allow Cleco to respond more quickly and accurately to power outages, the company said.
Taking its time
But Entergy has been careful not to rush its own process.
"One of the mistakes that we've seen others make is they deploy the meters before the communications infrastructure, so they've got a smart meter but it doesn't talk to anybody," Denault said.
Entergy New Orleans launched a limited, $10 million pilot program for the technology in 2011, but subsequent reviews found that the effort faced equipment issues and a learning curve for its participants.
"There's no doubt that the pilot program could've been much more successful had more time, energy and resources been spent on the education piece," Burke said.
Over time, the smart meters may be equipped to provide services like personalized energy-saving tips, mobile notifications for customers using a lot of power and initiatives to let customers save money by avoiding peak electricity demand periods.
In New Orleans, Entergy estimates the equipment will "produce a collective benefit" of $27 million over the 15-year life of the equipment.
To Denault, the equipment could one day play a key role in his industry's long-term objective of providing reliable and affordable power.
"It'll be years before they come up with anything that says we could've prevented a lot of those power outages," he said, reflecting on the crews that combed through the destruction left by the recent tornado. "I'm not going to say that they won't get there someday. They will. We just don't know how yet."