“Time and tide,” it is proverbially said, “wait for no one.”
And these were tides from the time before climate change.
In these times, the CEO of the Louisiana energy company Entergy told Wall Street analysts, as reported by our guest today Ivan Penn in the New York Times, “that Entergy was replacing its towers and poles with equipment ‘able to handle higher wind loading and flood levels.’”
And just two weeks later, Hurricane Ida left climate change’s fingerprints all across Entergy’s power grid for Louisiana. The storm damaged eight high-voltage transmission lines that supply power to New Orleans and damaged or destroyed 500 smaller transmission structures and 31,000 poles that carry lower-voltage distribution lines in neighborhoods.
Customers were left without power — in some cases — for weeks.
As for Entergy’s plan to upgrade the poles and transformers that are the key nodes of their power-delivery system, it can be summed up in four words: “too little, too late.”
Which would be more forgivable if Hurricane Ida were a once in a lifetime event. But, it was actually a twice in two years event. In 2020, Hurricane Laura actually took out almost four times as many transmission structures as Ida. And the dangerous obsolescence of Entergy’s pole and transformer network had been pointed out by local critics for years before that. And all this time, the climate has been changing and the tide, literally and figuratively, has been rising.
The Entergy power grid may fail, but at least it hasn’t burned down large portions of the state like California’s utility PG&E, whose antiquated and often under-maintained power lines, transformers and poles have ignited many of the worst California wildfires of the past 10 years.
PG&E is braced for fresh rounds of criminal charges and a liability bill of more than a billion dollars for its likely role in starting this year’s Dixie Fire, the second-largest in state history. The company recently emerged from a bankruptcy exacerbated by fines from criminal convictions relating to past wildfires. Part of getting out of bankruptcy was a settlement PG&E will almost certainly be unable to pay for.
In both California and Louisiana, under-investment in equipment maintenance and upgrades, committed by well-paid executives and overseen by state regulators, produced catastrophes. And then there’s Texas where climate change was reflected in a February 2021 Big Freeze and a mid-summer heat wave, both of whose effects were magnified by utility mistakes, like turning off the power that ran gas facilities needed to fuel power plants during the Freeze, and in June, worsening the heat emergency by taking too much generation capacity out of service for maintenance.
Time and tide are not waiting. But — what we are hearing from global and national political leaders is more talk than action at the baseline level of power poles, transformers, and the grid that connects them and us.
Ivan Penn is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy. Before coming to The Times in 2018 he covered utility and energy issues for nearly eight years at The Tampa Bay Times and then The Los Angeles Times.
He also worked at The Miami Herald and The Baltimore Sun, where he was an investigative reporter and covered government, politics and criminal justice. A native of Washington, Mr. Penn grew up in Maryland and graduated from the University of Maryland.