When Hurricane Ida knocked out power to millions for days or weeks, the voters were hot in every sense of the word. They were uncomfortable because the outages stretched into September, and there was no air conditioning to vanquish the summer heat. And they were angry because — well, all this misery had to be someone’s fault.
Politicians were quick to step in and promise to investigate someone or fine someone or, in the case of the New Orleans City Council, maybe just buy the local power provider, Entergy New Orleans.
That was the single worst idea to emerge from the passions of September: A government that can’t fix the streets and can’t keep the pumps working taking on the management of a complex power distribution system and repairing it expeditiously in its moment of distress.
The stark truth is that Louisiana has one of the least reliable distribution grids in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2020, when Louisiana was disproportionately impacted by tropical weather, our state ranked No. 1 for the number of minutes power was out for each customer on average.
We also have some of the lowest power bills in the land, thanks largely to the availability of natural gas. Both are important.
So how can we have better reliability?
Supporters of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed last year note that it includes $27 billion for new transmission structures, “smart grid” technology and storm hardening.
But Louisiana will only get a fraction of that. Entergy, which is a big player but is only one of the utilities serving Louisiana, expects to spend $4 billion recovering from Ida and the string of 2020 hurricanes that devastated southwest Louisiana. So our share of the $27 billion won’t make much of a dent.
Maybe Louisiana can convince Washington to chip in because our grid is of critical national importance, with a fifth of the nation’s oil refining capacity in our state. But other states have critical industries too.
Green energy fans believe Ida demonstrates the need to transition away from fossil fuels to solar energy. If communities powered themselves with solar panels, they note, we wouldn’t be as dependent on a grid.
Technological improvements have made solar power more competitive on price with conventional fossil fuels. Louisiana ranks 49th in the nation for the proportion of renewable energy consumption, and we’re the most vulnerable state when it comes to climate change. So there is a role for renewable energy here.
But if communities are to rely on solar power exclusively, they will need costly battery capacity that will be a challenge for a poor state like Louisiana. A study by Lazard found that utility-scale solar power systems are competitive with natural gas. But community solar and residential rooftop (which is what would we would need if we wanted to eliminate the conventional power grid) cost two to five times as much. When factoring in battery storage, the costs rise even higher.
Storms are inevitable for our communities, and so are the power outages that follow. If we want to shorten the outages and limit the inconvenience, we’ll need a stronger grid.
How much strengthening we want, and how much our people can afford, is something our political leaders will have to sort out.
With electricity, as with so many things, there is no such thing as a free lunch.