As expected, the New Orleans City Council approved a proposal Thursday to build a $210 million gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East, closing the book on a debate has roiled some neighborhoods for nearly two years.
The 6-1 vote came despite the dozens of residents who packed the council’s newly renovated chamber at City Hall on Perdido Street and loudly condemned the proposed plant as unnecessary and a hazard to both health and the environment.
A relatively small group of supporters, meanwhile, showed up to back Entergy New Orleans, which claims the new plant will be an essential backup during times of high energy demand and emergencies.
After nearly six hours, council members LaToya Cantrell, Jason Williams, Jared Brossett, Nadine Ramsey, Stacy Head and James Gray voted to sign off on the proposal to build a 128-megawatt unit with seven natural-gas fired engines, which had the backing of the council's consultants.
They cited the need for a local power source that can support the grid when power demand is high or when other sources are unavailable, and noted that the plant would produce less pollution and use far less water than did its recently closed predecessor on the same site.
Cantrell, who will take office as mayor in May and who has said little publicly about the issue in recent weeks, said she hoped the plant would help bolster the supply of energy for the city's drainage system. The Sewerage & Water Board has struggled to keep the aging turbines that power many of the city's most important pumps in working condition.
She also said she was "looking closely" at reviving a utilities department within City Hall.
"What makes it easier for me is looking at the needs of our city holistically," Cantrell said.
Only Councilwoman Susan Guidry opposed the move, echoing claims that the council could instead force Entergy to improve its transmission lines, vastly increase its use of solar technology and boost efforts to curb demand.
"The cost of the plant will be on your bills for the next 30 years," Guidry said. "The plant’s technology would likely be obsolete before you finish paying for it."
Debate has raged over the matter ever since July 2016, when Entergy submitted an application for an even bigger plant than was approved Thursday. The utility offered the $210 million plant as an alternative after months of protest and as new projections showed customers would actually need less power than Entergy originally estimated.
The new option, which would run during periods of high demand, has been considered by other jurisdictions across the country that are also embracing renewables, proponents have said. The council has also pointed to the plant's "black-start" capability, which would allow Entergy to jumpstart considerable portions of its grid when power goes dark, such as after a hurricane.
Benefits aside, Thursday's lengthy debate — filled with loud chanting, singing, boos and repeated calls for order — exposed some of the resentment residents in New Orleans East feel over a perception that their neighborhoods have been used as a dumping ground.
Many speakers alluded to the council's decision in 2006 to place a landfill on Chef Menteur Highway near the mostly Vietnamese-American Village de l’Est community.
Residents in and near that neighborhood showed up in droves to protest, unconvinced by Entergy’s claims that a modern unit would generate less pollution. They urged the council to deny the plant outright, or leave the controversial decision to a new group of elected officials who will be sworn in this May.
“On top of all of the cars and all of the other things that we have … now we will have this ancient old technology sitting in our backyard, that we will be breathing in and out every day,” said Mark Nguyen, first in English and then in Vietnamese.
Pearl Cantrell of the 600-member Kenilworth Civic Association put things bluntly. “Please, do not put what you don’t want anywhere else in New Orleans East,” she said.
Supporters, however, pointed to Entergy’s promises that the plan would help end blackouts in the city and create jobs.
“It is my belief that the proposed power station is necessary for the vitality of our city,” said Harrison Crabtree of Greater New Orleans Inc.
Entergy officials, meanwhile, listened on the sidelines, rather than actively defending their proposal as they have done for months.
The council’s utility advisers, as they have before, said the plant is needed to mitigate the threat of cascading outages. “Entergy has a critical and urgent reliability issue that needs to be addressed,” said Emma Hand of the international law firm Dentons US.
Williams took note of the tensions in the room but said the objections raised and emotion on display were not enough to sway him.
"Our job as elected officials is to look beyond soundbites, and to look beyond the emotion of a decision, and to look at every single (fact)," he said. "And based on my review of the record ... I'm not excited, but I have to vote for this plant today."
Brossett added that any further delays would be "irresponsible," given the city's power woes. And Head said that building the plant doesn't mean New Orleans can't increase its use of renewable power sources in coming years.
While the full cost of the plant to ratepayers will be calculated at a later date, the council's advisers have said that the average residential customer would likely pay an additional $6.43 a month once the plant is built, if no other solutions are implemented in the meantime.