In June of 2016, Entergy closed its steam electric Michoud plant at 12550 Old Gentilly Road, after being in commercial production since 1957. Afterward, Entergy began the process of trying to get the city’s permission to build a new plant.
While it seemed like a natural choice to build something with a focus on renewable energy, that was more environmentally sound, Entergy decided they wanted to build another plant in the same place, using the same resources. In a world that’s turning towards wind and solar, Entergy decided to go with natural gas.
I reached out to several activist groups opposing construction of the plant, in its current form and location. I also attempted to speak to representatives of Entergy, who did not respond. What I wanted to know is: What are the costs and economic impacts for consumers and the city of New Orleans? What is the environmental impact of the planned natural gas power plant?
Entergy estimates that the bill for New Orleans residents will be about $5.84 a month over thirty years. When you read the number, 5.84 is not a huge amount, but let’s start crunching the math: 5.84 X 12 = 70.08. For some, that amounts to an entire extra month’s utility bill a year. At $70.08 a year, for thirty years, that’s $2,102.40. That’s more than $2,000 for a non-renewable energy source that is out of date before it’s even built, relying on natural gas, a finite resource that is not clean burning.
I spoke to Logan Atkinson Burke, the Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy.
“Entergy has said, ‘It’s gonna cost under six dollars a month, or around five dollars and seventy’ depending on which article you prefer. Our concern is that that is just the number they are guessing, based entirely on their expectation for how much the plant can sell energy into the power market and make up the difference. They know that if New Orleans residents were the only ones paying for it, it would be way more than five dollars and change. They are making an assumption, a guess, that they are going to sell some of that power, and that customers outside of Orleans parish will pay some of those costs.”
This is not the first time Entergy has made these claims.
“We’ve actually seen this before. A couple of years ago, Entergy purchased a power plant that was about a decade old in Arkansas. It’s called Union. And they said something very similar. ’This power plant is only gonna cost about five dollars a month for customers.’ Their forecasts were not true, and it cost more like ten dollars, fifteen dollars a month until the council was able to find other dollars to basically plug that hole.”
So–$2100 or $6000? It’s anyone’s guess.
Monique Harden, Assistant Director of Law and Policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice concurs.
“So we’ve got one of the highest bills and one of the highest rates of poverty, and a company that’s looking to squeeze out even more. That’s just wrong. We would love to see an energy future that is equitable, that is affordable, and that’s safe. Renewable is the way to do that. Energy efficiency is the way to do that.”
Harden says, “We have no idea the real cost to consumers. In a city where people borrow money to pay their electric bills, where people line up early morning hours outside of charitable organizations that have grant money where they can offset the cost of the bill, or calling their pastors at their churches for help, this is nuts!”
In an effort to hold Entergy’s feet to the fire, Harden’s group offered a solution to part of the problem.
“So what we tried to do was urge the city council to set cost conditions as part of the approval. In other words, what Entergy’s application is for is two things from the city council: Will you approve the construction and will you pass the construction bill onto the ratepayers of New Orleans? So when the council says yes, Entergy has the green light on who’s going to pay the bill for the construction. It’s us.”
“What we asked the council to do…was to hold Entergy to their cost projection as a condition for construction approval. Guess who said no to that? It wasn’t the city council. It was (Entergy CEO) Charles Rice. He basically said, ‘I will not be held to the cost conditions, to the costs we’ve been telling everybody, as a condition for approval,’ and the city council decided to go his way.’”
We’ve got this fait accompli prior deal, we’ve got this predetermined outcome, that’s controlling this whole thing. CEO Charles Rice seems to have more control of our city council than the voters do, and
by and large, the voters are the ratepayers.”
When it comes to environmental concerns, things are no better. Logan Burke certainly isn’t optimistic.
“When it comes to power plants, we’ve been really concerned in particular that New Orleans, a city that is so vulnerable to climate change would choose to invest in a new fossil fuel power plant. And it will be situated in the most vulnerable location in the city to major storm surge flooding. It’s a pretty terrible location. During Katrina, that power plant flooded.”
She cites research, including articles by scientist Roy Dokka in a human Impact Assessment with Louisiana Public Health Institute. “Recent subsidence in New Orleans and in the area, as a result of various drivers, and one of them was groundwater pumping. He (Dokka) pointed out that what’s happening in that location, what was happening faster than other places in the city, and really drew a connection between the tremendous amounts of groundwater that was pumped there over sixty years.”
So while New Orleans may be sinking, the Michoud area is sinking even faster, thanks to groundwater being used by the plant, “Over ten million gallons of water a day, by far the largest groundwater user in Orleans Parish.”
When Burke tried to inform people, it didn’t go well, “I started going to levee district meetings to say, ‘I don’t know if you’re paying attention to what Entergy is proposing here, but we’ve got a levee concern because this is right next to a levee.’ And one of those levee board members referred to the whole area being in ‘geologic free fall.’
When I ask Monique Hardin about whether it’s fair to blame Entergy for subsidence, she answers, “Yes, it is fair. And that’s based on scientific studies carried out by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and university researchers. Where industrial wells and water withdrawals take place in Louisiana, it increases or accelerates the rate of subsidence in areas that are naturally prone to subsidence. This report finds that is a cause of accelerated subsidence in the vicinity of the wells. It also correlated that one of the levees failures during Hurricane Katrina was in an area where there was subsidence under the levee footing.”
Dawn Hebert, Vice President of the Lake Willow Neighborhood Association, and member of the Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission (ENONAC) were blunt, “That’s exactly right. FEMA declared it a flood zone, so why are they building a plant in a flood zone? We can’t build in a flood zone unless we build… I don’t know how high up. So why would they want to build in that location anyway? It’s only because they own the property.”
As if the risk of flooding weren’t enough, the pollution is just as disconcerting. Logan Burke says, “There are also emissions that come from a power plant. You might have noticed in the last six months, there have been a number of hazardous air warnings. There are days where they say, ‘don’t drive too much, don’t leave your gas cap open.’ That’s directly connected to something called particulate matter. That’s the smallest little bit of pollution, and it can come from all kinds of things as the result of the combustion of a fossil fuel.”
This new version of the plant that Entergy has been approved to build actually has a very high percentage of particulate matter emissions during its start-up and shut-down.”
Entergy has argued, “but yeah it’s better than the old plant.” But the old plant has been shut down over two years, so it’s not better than what we have now. Now we’re not putting the particulate matter in the air. But if the plant is built, we will. So, in particular, it will happen on days that are pretty hot, days like today, days like last weekend when there’s a much greater likelihood that ground-level ozone is developed. And that’s really bad for kids who have asthma if they play outside during those hot days.”
“We’re concerned with the families who will live within two miles of the plant being asked to carry the health burden of such a thing.”
Dawn Hebert adds, “As it is, we have a high level of respiratory illnesses here in this community already. This would compound that. This would make it worse. And we have community members, especially those closest to the plant, who are really afraid how it will affect them and their children and the children that will come after them. I believe this is a huge environmental issue.”
Right now, Entergy is moving forward with building its power plant and the city is fighting against holding another vote. But in the end, this isn’t about a power plant. It’s about corporate power versus people power.