Nearly two years of debate over the future of electricity production and usage in New Orleans culminated Wednesday with the 4-1 vote by a City Council committee in favor of building a $210 million gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East, the biggest power project in the city in decades.
The vote came after the committee heard nearly eight hours of comments from dozens of residents.
Many showed up by the busload to speak against the proposal but had to wait outside the auditorium at the Pan American Life Center on Poydras Street because of fire code restrictions. The council's regular chamber at City Hall is closed for renovations.
At the same time, dozens of others came out in support of plans by Entergy New Orleans to replace the power the city used to draw from its 1960s-era Michoud power plant on Old Gentilly Road, which was shut down last year.
The new 128-megawatt plant approved Wednesday, to be composed of seven natural gas-fired engines, won't run at all times but instead will support the grid when power demand is high or other sources are unavailable.
It would be a notable upgrade over the former Michoud steam-electric power station, with technology that can jump-start much of Entergy’s power grid should it go dark during a hurricane or other emergency.
Officials said it would use much less water and emit much less pollution than the former plant.
For all of those reasons, four of the five members of the council’s Utility Committee went along with the recommendations of their consultants and voted in favor of building the new plant despite the fierce objections of many residents.
“If we have learned anything at all from the disastrous failures of the Sewerage & Water Board last year, it is that inaction is problematic,” Council President Jason Williams said, referring to years of deferred maintenance on the city's drainage system.
“Trying to look too far into the future can cause you to ignore your past and your present," he added. "And the will to get it perfect does not override and cannot override our common sense of meeting basic needs to keep the power on, and at a good price.”
Detractors continued to insist that Entergy should instead meet the city’s electricity needs by using renewable sources such as solar panels, upgrading transmission lines and purchasing power from elsewhere on the open market.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry cast the lone vote in opposition, agreeing with the critics that the the city should pursue alternatives.
The Utility Committee’s recommendation must still be ratified by the full council, probably at its March 8 meeting. But with votes in favor from Williams, Stacy Head, James Gray and Jared Brossett, the proposal appears to have an assured majority on the seven-member council.
Getting to Wednesday's vote has been a fraught process. Entergy applied in 2016 to build a bigger plant than the one approved Wednesday, a $210 million, 226-megawatt combustion turbine plant.
But the council and its consultants balked, claiming Entergy had not justified the need for such a large plant and had not said how much council-ordered energy efficiency programs have affected the city’s overall demand for power. Over time, the estimated cost of the turbine plant also grew to $232 million.
In the meantime, Entergy has faced pointed criticism from some community groups, who have accused it of being secretive about its plans and of prioritizing profits over residents’ needs.
They argue that Entergy should invest in improving transmission lines, adding solar capacity and helping residents cut back on their energy use.
“Entergy does have a transmission problem,” said Logan Atkinson Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy. “That concern requires a transmission investment solution. We have the ability to offset power requirements through growing our demand-side management programs that people want.”
Other opponents spoke of feeling dumped on and discriminated against, given the proposed plant’s proximity to homes and schools.
Council members and their consultants ultimately dismissed those claims, citing the older plant’s presence in the Michoud area for decades and the newer plant’s promise of lower pollution levels and less subsidence.
The plant is needed, Entergy and the council majority agreed, because New Orleans has been at risk of cascading outages since the old plant was decommissioned. The city today is almost entirely dependent on transmission from sources outside of the parish, and those sources are severely limited by the city’s geography.
Entergy’s only recourse at present to reduce the system’s burden is to cut service to some customers deliberately, they said.
While the transmission line upgrades that Burke and others suggested, at an estimated cost of $57 million, would seem cheaper than a $210 million plant, council adviser Joe Vumbaco called the figure a “back of the envelope” Entergy estimate that is likely much higher in reality.
Moreover, “transmission is not generation,” Entergy counsel Brian Guillot said. “Being 100 percent transmission-reliant in an event of a storm is like depending on a firetruck in LaPlace to fix a fire in New Orleans East. It makes no sense.”
Entergy’s supporters backed up those claims, citing recent outages that have already burdened customers.
“When I heard that this new plant would cut down on the recovery time of our power being restored, that caught my interest,” said the Rev. J.T. White, pastor of Greater King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Gert Town.
"I may not know about all of these technical terms about power," he said. "But I do know what it is to spend three or four days in a hot house, without any electricity, with a mad wife."
Guidry, and to some extent Head, seemed sympathetic to the proposed plant’s critics. But while Head said she felt it was prudent to go along with the recommendations of the council’s advisers, Guidry called for more review.
“To think that a gas-powered plant is going to be relevant to us in 30 years, I find it difficult,” Guidry said.
While the committee’s resolution calls for the cost to ratepayers of building the new plant to be fully calculated at a later date, estimates by the council’s advisers suggest that the average residential customer’s monthly bill would rise by $6.43 a month once the plant is built, if no other strategies are implemented in the meantime.