Buy power for new orleans drainage pumps, cantrell transition team recommends 2015 electricity rates


New Orleans’ Sewerage & Water Board should switch to buying electricity for its massive drainage pumps and tap its own antiquated power-generation equipment only as a backup, a transition group convened by Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell is recommending.

Cantrell, who will become the water board‘s president when she is sworn in as mayor Monday (May 7), should move to make that power change in her first year in office, her transition committee said. Within that first year, she should also push a "signature water project" that connects the east bank’s water supply to the Algiers plant, among other actions, to improve the city’s notoriously unreliable water system, the group said.

The to-do items were among dozens of recommendations in a sweeping report by transition working groups delivered to Cantrell this past week. The document also included major proposals in areas ranging from public safety to housing and services for low-income residents. Cantrell required members of her transition to sign non-disclosure agreements, and several people in recent days declined to discuss their recommendations, citing those NDAs.

For decades, four of the Sewerage and Water Board’s five power turbines have produced antiquated 25-Hertz power in-house via steam or gas. They have been used to power pumps that help drain the city when it rains. A fifth, 60-Hertz turbine powered by Entergy serves as a backup source for the drainage system.

Severe problems with those turbines were on display last summer, when two bouts of heavy rains flooded parts of the city. Amid flooding Aug. 5 and immediately after, all four of the 25-Hertz turbines were at one point all out of service, leaving only the backup Entergy turbine as the city’s last line of drainage defense.

In the months that followed, the Sewerage & Water Board has pumped an estimated $82 million in emergency repairs to patch up the four turbines and nearly 20 drainage pumps. But officials, including outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have repeatedly warned that repairs to existing equipment will not be enough to safeguard the city from future flooding.

Cantrell’s transition report calls for “relegating the existing (utility) power plant to a backup/redundant power source and implementing a cost-effective plan to purchase reliable power." The switch to purchasing power instead of producing it in-house could spur “a cost savings of several million dollars annually," the report said, though it did not detail the analysis that led to that conclusion.

It’s unclear how exactly a switch-over might occur, but the Sewerage & Water Board already pays a sizable amount each year for outside electricity – roughly double, in fact, than the utility produces in-house. The power is mostly used to run the water and sewerage systems, which the utility also operates. The in-house turbines are reserved for drainage.

According to the utility’s 2016 comprehensive annual financial report, the Sewerage & Water Board has purchased about 683 million kilowatt-hours of electricity for a total roughly $67 million from 2007 to 2016. In that same time period, the utility generated nearly 359 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and steam in-house, at a cost just above $117 million.

Critics have questioned whether purchasing power from Entergy would prove a reliable source, given the outages Entergy experiences even on days when it’s not storming. In response to prodding from New Orleans City Council member Jared Brossett, Entergy informed that about 2,600 outages occurred between June 1, 2016, and May 31, 2017, of which around 1,500 happened during fair weather.