'The Gulf is warm. It's getting warmer,' Experts push for electric grid investment in Ida's wake

Hurricane Ida left New Orleans in the dark Aug. 31.
Samuel Hardiman Greg Hilburn
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Electricity experts and regulators who have surveyed some of Hurricane Ida's destruction say the overwhelming damage to Entergy's electric transmission system in Louisiana was probably unavoidable. 

Ida wreaked havoc on the power grid, knocking out eight transmission lines into New Orleans and leaving a transmission tower in ruins. Restoration of power is expected to take weeks, according to Entergy, the for-profit monopoly utility.

"150-mile-an-hour winds are going to be rough on any infrastructure that they hit," Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview with USA Today Network. 

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a frequent critic of Entergy and other monopolies he regulates, said he isn’t sure any system could withstand the 150-mph winds of Hurricane Laura last year and Hurricane Ida on Sunday.

“I’m usually the first one to hold Entergy accountable, but when 150-mph winds hit transmission lines, that’s where the mule jumps the fence,” Campbell said. “It’s a helluva mess, but I don’t know what the hell could have been done to fade those kinds of winds.

“This was unavoidable. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault," said Campbell. 

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Rhodes and other experts warned that the devastation to the electric grid, and the human suffering that comes with it, are a sign of things to come amid more frequent and stronger storms.

That growing threat, experts emphasized, underscores the need for a more resilient grid to replace an aging one, investment that probably would come with a hefty upfront cost.

"The Gulf is warm. It's getting warmer. And a warm Gulf means stronger storms and so if we're going to see more of these stronger storms, taking a hard look at how can we make the system more resilient overall, I think, would be a good consideration," Rhodes said. 

How can power grid be more resilient?

The devastation to Entergy's transmission system has raised the question among experts and regulators of how the grid should be improved and whether transmission lines — the high voltage lines that truck power over long distances — should be above or below ground. 

U.S. Rep. Troy Carter of New Orleans advocates for undergrounding. 

“One thing we should do and that I’ll be pushing for is to make sure we start going underground with as much of our power infrastructure as possible,” Carter told USA Today Network Tuesday as he surveyed the damage from a U.S Coast Guard plane.

“We know hurricanes are coming; we know what we can to do prevent the kind of disasters to our electricity grid that we’ve suffered the past year with Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Ida,” he said.

Both storms, two of the five strongest on record to ever hit the U.S., shredded the existing infrastructure.

Rhodes is a proponent of burying transmission lines where possible, noting that it might make sense closer to the Gulf of Mexico, where storms come ashore and the winds are strongest. 

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"As hurricanes move inland, they lose strength, and so the further the hurricane moves inland, the slower the wind speeds... It may be that we only have to do it for a certain distance from the Gulf," Rhodes said. 

New Orleans police detective Alexander Reiter looks over debris from a building that collapsed during Hurricane Ida on Aug. 30. Ida knocked out power to all of New Orleans and inundated coastal Louisiana communities.

Other experts including Larry Gasteiger of Wires, an electricity transmission trade group, see risk and cost in undergrounding. 

"Some will raise the question, 'Well why weren't these lines underground?' Well, the reason generally is because it's extremely expensive to do that. You're talking many multiples of cost over building a transmission system that's above ground," Gasteiger told USA Today Network. 

Gasteiger and Rhodes framed investments in grid resiliency as a balancing act between the cost of grid failure and the cost of resiliency. 

"There are not going to be any guarantees, and you can't account for absolutely everything... It's going to be a balance of cost and risk. Generally, people are willing to accept some level of risk associated with the system, because you don't want to pay the cost of having a completely risk-free system, and I'm not sure you could ever even get to that point," Gasteiger said. 

Ted Kury, director of energy studies for the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida, noted the cost of such improvements fall on ratepayers. 

"The biggest consideration when we're putting all this together is having the understanding that, that we can have a more resilient grid, but ultimately the people pay for it. There's no giant bag of money in the sky that's going to help to pay for all of these grid improvements," Kury said. 

Carter thinks he has a means of paying for it beyond putting it on the Louisiana ratepayers' tab. 

Rather than make consumers pay for the expensive burying of utilities, he wants to direct money from the proposed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that has passed the Senate and awaits action in the House as well as future infrastructure appropriations.

“I can’t imagine a more critical component of infrastructure than the power grid,” Carter said.

Climate change raises stakes 

Gasteiger noted analysis that showed weather-related outages grew over the first decade of the 21st century and are only expected to grow more. 

"If that trajectory continues, I think we're just going to continue to keep seeing more and more of it," Gasteiger said. "In terms of what do we do about it. I think it is worth really looking at building more resiliency into the grid." 

Hurricane Ida cut power to traffic lights and tattered a billboard in New Orleans.

Rhodes noted the likelihood of more frequent and stronger storms. He said he hoped once power was restored in affected areas of southeastern Louisiana, regulators would focus on making investments for the grid's resiliency.

"It's basic physics that warmer surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico will lead to stronger storms...," Rhodes said. "As we do maintenance on existing facilities or replace existing parts of the transmission network, I think it would be good for us to consider these climate change impacts, such that the next time this happens, the systems better prepared."

Kury said that the threats of climate change, rising sea levels and human population growth will not fix themselves. And it is a problem that deserves urgency beyond when the lights are out. 

"The problem is going to get worse... if we aren't talking about it and talking actively about ways to make the grid more resilient," Kury said. One main problem, he said, is that people stop caring once the immediate aftermath of storm is over and power is restored.

"It's important to be talking about these issues, not only now, but after the crisis has passed and everybody's lights are back on," Kury said. 

More Hurricane Ida coverage

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