Entergy apologizes for company's poor communication during recent winter storm
BATON ROUGE - After enduring a historic ice storm that left thousands of Louisiana residents without lights or heat amid freezing temperatures, officials are looking into why the state's utility companies had such a difficult time restoring power in a timely and organized fashion.
The Advocate reports that Entergy Louisiana President Phillip May, whose company provides power to about half the state’s consumers, apologized for the poor communications and promised to get better.
Five elected Public Service Commission (PSC) members met Wednesday (Feb. 24) during a Zoom call to listen as executives from each of the region's privately owned utility companies and each of the rural cooperatives, which are owned by the customers buying the electricity, to detail their experiences during last week’s polar vortex.
The Advocate reports that the PSC also heard from officials with the two regional transmission operations, which move power over several states from regions that have an excess to regions that need additional power. The RTOs were responsible for the blackouts that were needed to keep the entire electrical grid from a catastrophe that would have taken weeks to repair.
Ultimately, it was the failure to relay information quickly that especially bothered regulators, each of whom noted in one way or the other that they weren’t satisfied with either the reports they received or the utilities’ communications with customers.
Randy Pierce, the chief executive office for DEMCO said the co-op’s Baton Rouge area call center did a fairly good job handling customer complaints during a storm that shut off power to 42,253 customers at its peak. “But we’re analyzing and know we could do a better job,” Pierce said.
“Everybody needs to up their communications budgets for next time,” responded PSC Commissioner Mike Francis, of Crowley.
“You’re a multibillion-dollar company with penny-club customer service,” PSC Chairman Greene told Entergy’s May. “If you prioritized person-to-person assistance as much as shareholder returns, you’d have A+ customer service.”
Greene said the company carried out its technical functions in a satisfactory fashion, particularly given the severity of the weather event. He gave Entergy an A or maybe even A-plus on that account. But in telling customers how long they would be without electricity, the grade dropped to D-minus, The Advocate.
Greene says he took numerous calls from Entergy customers who told him the outage map was not working and was issuing false notifications to those in the cold without power, claiming that they did have power, and asking if customers were sure they did not have power.
Greene read emails he received from people relating how upset they were last week.
“We did not meet customer expectations,” May admitted, as far as providing adequate information during last week’s storm that knocked offline about 130,000 of Entergy’s roughly 1 million customers statewide.
May said the company’s call centers in West Monroe; Jackson, Miss.; Tulsa, Okla.; and other locations were impacted by the storm.
As of Monday, Feb. 15, about 25% of the call-center staffers couldn’t get to work, 23% were still out on Thursday, Feb. 18. In addition to absent staffers, the storm also caused problems with communications equipment owned by Entergy and fiberoptics run by contractors.
“We apologize for the inconvenience and we will endeavor to improve,” May said.
“People understand when the lights go out,” Greene responded. “Homeowners made it clear that their anger was with a giant company who dedicated insufficient resources toward giving them accurate, helpful answers. Louisiana residents are resilient, but they need to be able to prepare. But when they are not given useful information, people cannot make good decisions.”
The chairman added, “Our job is to make sure Entergy sees the residents they serve and their distribution grid maintenance as important as their rate of return, earnings, profits, and stock price.”
“Y’all going to have to eat some of this,” added PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish, suggesting that Entergy’s shareholders should pick up some of the costs of the storm, particularly given the Wall Street-traded corporation makes a 9.8% profit.
According to The Advocate, Campbell long has a history of criticizing utilities and his fellow commissioners for allowing utilities to collect too much profit – pointing out that with interest rates at 1% to 2% to 3%, the corporations are earning far above their costs of doing business.
A privately owned utility is legally allowed to recoup its costs of making and distributing electricity along with what is called a “return on equity.” The ROE is on a sliding scale based on achieving performance standards set by the PSC and the ROE is baked into the rate structure thereby guaranteeing a profit for the utility’s shareholders.
Utilities also are allowed to be repaid by their customers for their cost of restoring power after a storm, The Advocate notes.
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