New $74 million substation planned to power city drainage and water pumps

After years of problems trying to deliver reliable power to New Orleans’ critical drainage and water pumps, the Sewerage and Water Board plans to switch its entire system to primarily run on power from Entergy New Orleans, meaning it won’t have to rely so heavily on its aging internal generators.

The $74 million project, which has been in the works for years, still needs to go through several regulatory hoops before it becomes a reality. But if all goes as planned, it’s expected to be completed in time for the 2023 hurricane season. More details about the project will come out at a City Council committee meeting on Tuesday, June 21, according to City Councilman Joe Giarrusso.

Officials from the city of New Orleans, the Sewerage and Water Board, Entergy New Orleans as well as members of the City Council announced the joint plan at the Wednesday press conference.

“This project is certainly one of the biggest infrastructure accomplishments of this administration,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.

Among the top-line issues plaguing the Sewerage and Water Board is reliable power. Losing power to the city’s water supply pumps can cause water boil advisories, as happened in May. The loss of power to the city’s drainage pumps puts the city at elevated risk of severe flooding.

The latter problem came into clear focus for many residents in 2017, when a series of failures at the Sewerage and Water Board and rampant flooding led to widespread calls for change. City officials have been working to overhaul the system since then.

The plan announced on Wednesday is to build an Entergy substation at the Sewerage and Water Board’s key Carrollton Water and Power Plant. The Carrollton plant is already connected to Entergy’s local electricity grid. But the new substation will bring in power directly from the regional transmission system.

The vast majority of the power outages in New Orleans are due to failures in the local distribution system — the poles and wires that line every street. When the Sewerage and Water Board loses power from Entergy, it has to rely on its in-house generators, which have experienced incessant failures and outages that have repeatedly left the city unable to fully power its pumps.

The transmission system, on the other hand, delivers bulk electricity to the distribution system and is generally far more resilient to storms and other routine outages. With the new substation, the primary power going to the Sewerage and Water Board will come from Entergy, and it won’t have to go through the relatively unreliable distribution system.

Sewerage and Water Board Director Ghassan Korban said that some of the in-house turbines and the connection to the Entergy distribution system will be kept as redundant power sources. Korban said all of the existing turbines will eventually be decommissioned except the newest one — turbine 6, which was obtained in 2013.

The Sewerage and Water Board will also continue with its plan to acquire an additional generator — turbine 7. Korban said the new turbine will be retained after the substation is built along with turbine 6.

For years, officials have overwhelmingly agreed that it was necessary to build a new substation at the Carrollton plant. Disagreements between the City Council and Entergy over how to pay for the new substation derailed a previous proposal, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.

But there now seems to be an agreement in principle about how the project will be funded.

The $74 million will come from three different sources. The initial $34 million investment to build the substation will come from Entergy. The Sewerage and Water Board will then pay Entergy back for that investment over time.

Officials said that the investment should have no impact on the bills of Energy and Sewerage and Water Board customers. Korban said that the new substation will save between $5 million and $6 million a year that would otherwise be spent on generator fuel and maintenance for the aging turbines. Those savings will be used to pay Entergy for the substation.

The second tranche of money will be $20 million in state capital outlay dollars to integrate the substation with the Carrollton plant.

And last, the city will cough up $20 million from its own budget to install “frequency converters.” Some of the pumps in New Orleans require an antiquated type of electricity that is rarely used today, and is different from the form of electricity provided by Entergy. The “frequency changers” will allow the electricity from Entergy to power those older pumps.

Ramsey Green, Cantrell’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Infrastructure, said the $20 million will come from the obligation of bonds. In 2019, Orleans Parish voters approved a ballot measure that allowed the city to issue up to $500 million in bonds for city infrastructure. Green said that the city was seeking to issue upwards of $300 million in bonds this year.

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