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Entergy can recover $170 million in Ida costs from customers, consultant says

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lailluminator.com – Michael Isaac Stein, Verite – 2023-08-28 09:00:12

Entergy can recover $170 million in Ida costs from customers, consultant says

by Michael Isaac Stein, Verite, Louisiana Illuminator
August 28, 2023

NEW ORLEANS — Consultants for the New Orleans City Council have issued a new report saying that Entergy New Orleans should be able to collect $170 million from local customers to pay for damages caused by Hurricane Ida, just shy of the $179 million the company has asked for.

The consultants found the company responsibly and correctly spent $170 million to recover from Hurricane Ida, which ripped through New Orleans in August 2021 and left the city completely without power. The Aug. 15 report also states that current legal precedent allows Entergy to recoup those costs from customers through extra fees.

Councilmembers Helena Moreno and JP Morrell have both previously argued that customers shouldn't be on the hook for damages from Ida. Neither confirmed to Verite whether they will vote to approve the consultant recommendation. But both indicated publicly and to Verite that they will likely have no choice but to greenlight Entergy's request.

“The system of paying for storm restoration is broken,” Moreno told Verite in a statement. “We'll continue to look for all options to reform this broken system and build a more resilient grid.”

“The Council will review the record in its entirety to ensure that ratepayers are only footing the bill for the costs necessary to restore power after Hurricane Ida,” Morrell said.

“Under federal law and court precedent, the Council … is limited in its review of an application for cost recovery to the questions: Are the cost calculations correct? And were these costs prudently incurred?”

The consultant report was fairly clear: “Nothing suggested that [Entergy New Orleans'] actions were not in accordance with prudent utility practices.”

Entergy New Orleans did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Residents and government officials alike have harshly criticized the company for its preparations and response to the storm. It took over a week to return power to most of the city as 21 people died, mostly from heat exposure.

Councilwoman Moreno and then-council candidate Morrell responded in the aftermath of the storm by saying that they would do whatever they could to make sure costs weren't shouldered by customers who were already dealing with skyrocketing bills.

“I do not support Entergy passing through the cost of power restoration,” Morrell said on his campaign website after the storm.

Nearly two years later, it appears the council may be out of options and will likely have to approve Entergy's request. Local consumer advocates with the Alliance for Affordable Energy told Verite they were worried about the impact to customers.

“We are concerned about the effect of these storm costs on ratepayers, especially when compounded with Entergy's pending applications before the Council for increases in both electric and gas rates and for $1 billion for storm hardening,” Jesse George, policy director for the alliance, told Verite in an email. “Ratepayers in New Orleans suffer one of the highest energy burdens in the nation while Entergy routinely boasts to its shareholders about increasing profits and shareholder dividends by slashing maintenance spending.”

Although the cost recovery hasn't gotten final approval yet, customers began paying a fee for costs related to Ida in January. In December, the council voted to allow the company to preemptively start charging customers so that it could finance the recovery costs through bonds, and so that Entergy could lock in lower interest rates. If cost recovery ultimately isn't approved by the council, that money would likely be refunded or turned into discretionary council funds.

According to a sample bill on Entergy's website, a typical residential customer in New Orleans is paying $5.25 for the new storm recovery fee in August. Morrell's chief of staff Monet Brignac said that 62.5 percent of that fee was going to directly pay for Ida costs. The rest is dedicated to refilling the company's storm reserve fund, which was drained by Ida and previous hurricanes in 2020.

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‘We fought for months'

Councilmembers had first attempted to avoid charging customers by lobbying the federal government, making trips to Washington, D.C. and meeting with representatives of the Biden administration.

“We fought for months to get federal assistance to help take these costs from overburdened ratepayers,” Moreno said.

But Moreno's chief of staff, Andrew Tuozzolo, told Verite that to his knowledge, no federal funds were ever dedicated to Entergy New Orleans' cost recovery. Mayor LaToya Cantrell's office did not respond to questions about federal assistance for Entergy reimbursements.

The council also tried to find a way to force Entergy to pay for some of the recovery itself, instead of charging all of it to customers. According to Brignac, the council is obligated to follow a “prudent investment rule,” which basically states that if a utility company like Entergy is “prudent” in its storm recovery, regulators have to allow the company to recover those costs from customers.

The council opened a process to investigate Entergy's post-Ida spending, to ensure that all of it was indeed spent prudently. That process resulted in the new consultant report.

The advisors' suggested recovery amount — $170 million — was only slightly lower than the $179 million Entergy originally asked for. According to the report, 98 percent of the damage was to the local distribution system, the smaller poles and lines that bring electricity from building to building.

That might come as a surprise to some residents. The post-Ida blackout was primarily caused by problems in the transmission system: the bigger poles and wires that transport electricity regionally to the city. Hurricane Ida brought down all eight transmission lines that come into New Orleans, leaving the city an “island” without power.

Most of the damaged transmission equipment was outside of the Entergy New Orleans territory, and mostly owned by its sister company, Entergy Louisiana. The Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates Entergy Louisiana, approved its separate request to recover $1.5 billion for Ida damages in January.

When New Orleans was cut off from outside electrical transmission in the storm's aftermath, Entergy opted against activating a controversial new power plant — the New Orleans Power Station — inside city limits, which company executives previously said would be useful for just such a situation.

In response to questions from the council and the press, the company said that although the black-start capability could have been used, it was faster to repair the transmission lines first, leading critics to question the usefulness of the plant's black-start capability.

The company was also criticized for not adequately preparing for an era in which climate change is predicted to bring more intense storms. Following Hurricane Ida, the council asked Entergy New Orleans to develop a plan to harden the grid that would incur less damage from storms and therefore result in long-term savings.

Entergy New Orleans came up with a $1.3 billion storm hardening proposal, which would add over $11 to customers' monthly bills by 2028. The plan has not been approved by the City Council yet.

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This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Louisiana Illuminator

After U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow bump stocks, U.S. Senate rejects bill to ban them • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-19 06:25:13

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts blocked a bipartisan bill Tuesday that would ban bump stocks following a Supreme Court decision that repealed a Trump-era rule against using the gun accessory.

Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican, objected to New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich's request that the chamber approve his bill — cosponsored by Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins — by unanimous consent.

Heinrich attempted to pass the bill, which the trio introduced last year, following the Supreme Court ruling last week that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacked the authority to ban bump stocks.

“As a firearms owner myself, there's no legitimate use for a bump stock,” Heinrich said. “What they are tailor made for is a mass shooting.”

The bill, S. 1909, would ban the sale of bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to rapidly fire multiple rounds like a machine gun.

Ricketts argued that the Supreme Court made the right decision and said the bill didn't just ban bump stocks but also “targets other firearm accessories.”

Ricketts added that the bill is a violation of the Second Amendment.

“This bill is about banning as many firearm accessories as possible and giving ATF broad authority to ban most semi-automatic firearms,” Ricketts said. “It's an unconstitutional attack on law-abiding gun owners.”

Heinrich said the bill would not ban a large amount of firearm accessories, but would ban things like Glock switches, which can be attached to the side of a Glock handgun to convert a semi-automatic pistol into a fully automatic firearm.

“I think the American people understand what common-sense gun safety looks like,” Heinrich said.

Senate procedure requires 60 votes to proceed on most legislation. But for the chamber to approve a measure by unanimous consent, no senator can object.

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Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court on Friday overturned an ATF regulation, enacted during former President Donald Trump's administration after the Las Vegas mass shooting, which defined a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock attachment as a machine gun. Machine guns are generally prohibited under federal law.

In that mass shooting, a gunman used rifles outfitted with bump stocks to fire into a crowd of 22,000 people at a music festival, killing 58 people that night and two more who died of their injuries later, and injuring more than 500.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that the bill was needed because the Supreme Court's decision was “an utter disgrace.”

“It will endanger our communities, endanger law enforcement, and make it easier for mass shooters to unleash carnage,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said.

The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who is a strong defender of Second Amendment gun rights, deemed that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority in prohibiting the sale and possession of bump stocks, which he said differed importantly from machine guns.

“Nothing changes when a semiautomatic rifle is equipped with a bump stock,” Thomas wrote. “Between every shot, the shooter must release pressure from the trigger and allow it to reset before reengaging the trigger for another shot.”

Additionally, the decision, which was split along ideological lines, limits the federal government's ability to address gun violence in the absence of congressional action.

More federal gun legislation unlikely

With a split Congress, any gun-safety related legislation is unlikely to pass. However, after Friday's decision, President Joe Biden called on Congress to ban bump stocks and assault weapons.

“Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” Biden said at the time.

The last time Congress passed gun legislation was in 2022 after two mass shootings that occurred less than two weeks apart.

One was at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed. The other was in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist targeted a predominantly Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people.

The 2022 gun safety legislation did not ban any firearms but provided funds for mental health and to help states enact red flag laws, which allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others, among other provisions.

That same year, the Supreme Court decided on a major gun-related case that invalidated a New York law against carrying a firearm in public without showing a special need for protection.

Because of that decision, there's another gun-related case before the court that will test a federal law that prevents the possession of firearms by a person who is subject to a domestic violence protective order. A decision on that is expected this month.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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Louisiana lags on electric vehicle charging program, but DOTD sees ‘no reason to rush’ • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Wesley Muller – 2024-06-19 05:00:24

by Wesley Muller, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

Two years after receiving federal funding to build electric vehicle charging stations across the state, Louisiana has yet to ask for bids from companies that might want the money. However, state transportation officials say there is a reason for their sluggish pace. 

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), plans to start the request-for-proposal process as soon as it identifies an appropriate “contracting mechanism” under state law to use the money, DOTD spokesperson Rodney Mallett said. 

The Federal Highway Administration allocated $73.4 million to Louisiana under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program in 2022. NEVI is a product of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Congress approved in 2021. It included billions for state transportation agencies to build a network of rapid chargers along major highways. 

Louisiana's initial response was on par with other states. DOTD submitted its NEVI deployment plan by the federal deadline of August 2022. However, while states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and others now are disbursing the grant money or have already built some EV charging stations, Louisiana hasn't yet figured out how to spend it. 

“There's no real reason to spend two-plus years figuring out how to get this money to grant recipients when other states are already opening up chargers,” said Ryan McKinnon of the Charge Ahead Partnership, an EV charger lobby group. “Lots of states will be opening up chargers pretty soon, and it sounds like Louisiana will be sitting on the sidelines.” 

McKinnon said Louisiana is one of 11 states that have still not asked for bids to use the NEVI grant money. 

Some congressional Republicans and anti-union groups have directed their criticism at the Biden administration, claiming the delays are the result of mismanagement or of labor requirements within federal rules. Officials closest to the situation say the delays are largely because it is a new program that they want done correctly.

Mallet said the federal rules for the NEVI program don't “fit cleanly” within DOTD's usual contracting methods. DOTD often writes contracts for projects in which the agency owns and maintains the infrastructure, such as highways. In contrast, the EV charger grants will pay for the construction of infrastructure for which “ownership and operation will be transferred” from the state, in most cases, to a private entity, he said.

Although the Biden administration has aimed for a goal of building 500,000 charging stations by 2026, Mallet said the NEVI funds do not lapse, so there is no hard deadline to complete the projects.

“The key is to do it right for the long term,” Mallet said. “No reason to rush it through.”

States to receive $2.5B from feds for electric vehicle charging infrastructure

Tyler Herrmann with Louisiana Clean Fuels, a nonprofit working with DOTD on the NEVI rollout, said earlier, smaller EV charger programs saw build-outs at sites that weren't very practical. 

The chargers were often installed at public libraries or apartment complexes — places with no real interest or resources to maintain them. Without that routine maintenance, chargers would break and often stay that way for years. 

The government learned from those programs and is now taking care to avoid making those same kinds of mistakes, Herrmann said.   

“It is a unique situation,” Herrmann said of DOTD's efforts to administer the NEVI grants. “The program is pretty much completely different from what the DOTD does normally.”

In the meantime, Louisiana Clean Fuels has been working to build a workforce of technicians who can install and repair EV chargers and supply equipment.

Baton Rouge Community College just recently saw its first class of students graduate from a three-week course in which they learned some of the fundamentals required to become nationally certified Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment technicians. 

Herrmann said about a dozen students completed the first course, which will soon be offered at other community colleges across the state.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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St. Tammany’s embattled coroner targeted under new state laws • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Julie O'Donoghue – 2024-06-18 17:43:54

by Julie O'Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator
June 18, 2024

Gov. Jeff Landry has signed two new laws to weaken the authority of St. Tammany Parish's controversial coroner who is already the subject of a recall campaign. 

Dr. Christopher Tape drew scrutiny from lawmakers after a WWL-TV investigation revealed he had been accused of child sex abuse in New Mexico decades ago and then settled a lawsuit over workplace sexual harassment allegations in the past few years. Charges in the New Mexico case were quashed after the prosecutor failed to move the case forward in a timely fashion. 

Almost immediately after taking office, Tape also tried to cancel a multi-parish program housed in the St. Tammany coroner's office that provides nurses to perform sexual assault exams on victims. The service helps police collect evidence and assists Northshore district attorneys who prosecute sex crimes. 

Legislators responded to Tape's actions, as well as his refusal to resign from his job, by filing legislation to limit his power.

Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, sponsored a new law to give the St. Tammany Parish Council greater authority over the coroner's public finances and the ability to remove any coroner convicted of violent crimes. Moving forward, candidates for St. Tammany coroner must submit records regarding their criminal background to the local clerk of court.

Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, authored a second law that allows the state attorney general to move sexual assault victim programs to another parish if the local coroner is unqualified or unwilling to perform those duties. 

In Tape's case, a transfer has already happened. Last month, the Jefferson Parish Coroner's Office took over the sexual assault examination program serving the Northshore region. The two parishes have entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement that allowed Jefferson Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich to hire the nurses who worked for the St. Tammany program.

Meanwhile, the organizers of Tape's recall must gather 35,000 signatures from qualified voters before mid-October for an election potentially forcing Tape out of office to take place.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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