Entergy New Orleans pulled about $1 million from a repair fund for power lines and poles five years ago, and New Orleanians have had frequent power outages in the years since then, officials admitted Thursday.
The utility has also moved at a snail's pace to install solar panels on city rooftops, plagued by breakdowns in negotiations with a developer who no longer appears interested in that project.
Those were the major revelations from Thursday's bruising meeting of the City Council's Utility Committee, at which Entergy executives were thrust into the hot seat.
The committee demanded that the company explain why residents have been left in the dark so often and why a 2016 plan to build up to 100 megawatts of solar has yet to be realized.
Members were visibly frustrated by the answers they got.
Although Entergy realized its earlier error in 2016 and began pouring more money into the network of lines and poles that make up its power distribution system, its reaction to solving a problem that affected thousands of citizens was too slow, Councilman Jason Williams said.
“And I am certain that shareholders of Entergy did not suffer during those times,” he said.
Councilwoman Helena Moreno said Entergy's failure to quickly build solar panels, contrasted with its repeated calls for council approval of a new $210 million gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East, speaks volumes about what the company considers important.
“Other items that Entergy deems as a priority, you all have moved quickly on,” she said. "This, which you are saying is a priority, you move very slowly on. And that’s why it’s easy to think that (solar) is not a priority for the company.”
Thursday’s meeting was another uncomfortable episode for Entergy, which has admitted that actors were paid to praise the new power plant at earlier council meetings.
Entergy claims it did not authorize those payments, even while conceding that it asked its contractors to turn out specific numbers of plant proponents. But emails that are now part of a City Council investigation into the matter show that Entergy executives sought to keep the utility's role in mobilizing the supporters a secret.
While Entergy has claimed the new 128-megawatt plant is needed to provide locally generated power and prevent possible cascading outages, it also has admitted that the lines that bring power to homes and businesses have been in need of repair.
On Thursday, it was revealed that broken equipment has caused between 73 and 81 percent of power outages in each of the past five years.
Those outages followed Entergy’s 2013 decision to raid $1 million from a pool of money slotted for repairs. The utility did so because at the time, its distribution system was “outstanding,” said Melonie Stewart, Entergy’s vice president for customer service.
“We didn’t want to spend money on a system that was performing extremely well,” Stewart said. “But as we backed off from that funding, we did see the reliability go in the wrong direction.”
The utility moved in 2016 to fix the problem, spending $10 million on its lines and poles that year and doubling its overall distribution system funding in the years after that.
But customers are still experiencing equipment-related outages, Moreno, Joe Giarrusso and other council members said. They said Entergy should have moved faster to replenish the money it had taken out.
Moving reactively to make repairs, rather than working to prevent them in the first place, is how the Sewerage & Water Board landed in its current mess, Moreno said. A deluge and widespread flooding last summer exposed long-brewing problems in that agency’s equipment and operations.
“There is concern that this (Entergy) distribution system could be the next Sewerage & Water Board,” Moreno said. "The people of New Orleans can’t have that.”
Entergy is expected to submit revised plans to fix the broken equipment by July 5 — its third such submission to the council, after members rejected the previous plans as not detailed enough.
Entergy also got roasted Thursday for slow-walking a plan to install up to 100 megawatts of solar panels. In the two years since the company pledged to go solar, only a fourth of that project is close to being realized, council members said.
Entergy executives said the delay has been caused by stalled negotiations with developers who proposed to build the panels. They said they expect to bring one signed contract for 20 megawatts of solar power to the council by the end of July, and another 50-megawatt deal is being worked out.
Both of those projects would be built outside of Orleans Parish. But a third proposal, for 20 megawatts within the parish, appears to have fallen apart after a developer backed out.
“The bidder has recently indicated to us that it has larger projects in other parts of the country, and it is no longer interested in pursuing the deal for the Orleans Parish resource,” Entergy lawyer Brian Guilot said, adding that Entergy would work to salvage the project.
That caused a storm among council members and members of the audience, who said the episode proved Entergy had not put solar power first.
Logan Atkinson Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy suggested that Entergy should be forced to add a certain amount of renewable power sources to its mix. And Pat Bryant of Justice and Beyond said Entergy should be given the boot altogether.
“This council needs to stand up and bring in somebody new, or this council needs to very clearly say, 'Let’s look at some other ways of doing this,' ” Bryant said.