A solar installation in Walton County Georgia generates 3 megawatts for the electricity co-op that owns it. Credit: Flight Lead Aviation

Louisiana has had its share of fits and starts in entering the 21st-century world of renewable energy.

Most notably, there were the residential solar tax credits offered from 2009 to 2015 — the highest in the nation at the time.  Tens of thousands of homeowners across the state took advantage of those tax credits to purchase solar systems that will lower their electric bills for decades. Residential solar energy became so popular in New Orleans, for example, that by 2015 the city ranked in the Top 10 nationally in solar per capita.

Since then Louisiana has settled back into the dip of what solar professionals call the “solar coaster,” with little statewide political support for renewable-energy policies.  We’re an “oil state,” the pols want us to remember. So, the idea of a Louisiana resident making renewable energy and energy efficiency the center of a campaign for local elective office is about as common here as cool weather in August.

But that is exactly what happened this spring when Dr.  Michele Johnson, an internist who lives in Slidell, campaigned for a seat on the nine-member board of the Washington-St. Tammany (WST) rural electric cooperative. Leading a classic grassroots campaign, Johnson garnered over 2,000 votes. Her narrow loss — another 70 votes would have put her over the top — was a wake-up call about public support for renewable energy in Louisiana.

Now, you might be asking yourself, what the heck is a rural electric cooperative, and why is this newsworthy. The answers cut to the core of our energy future in Louisiana and across the South. Let’s explore.

The essentially rural nature of electric cooperatives means that they encompass some of the nation’s “reddest” political areas, and yet many are  leading the way in promoting renewable-energy offerings — outside of Louisiana, that is.

Most Louisiana residents get their electricity from large investor-owned utilities such as Entergy, municipal utilities such as Lafayette Utilities System, or from rural electric cooperatives. Cooperatives — not-for-profit organizations owned by the customers they serve — provide electricity for no fewer than 42 million Americans. In Louisiana, 11 rural electric co-ops power the homes and businesses of some 1 million residents. The WST covers most of St. Tammany and Washington parishes along with slivers of Tangipahoa Parish and Mississippi. There are over just over 50,000 member-owners.

It’s worth noting that the essentially rural nature of electric cooperatives means that they encompass some of the nation’s “reddest” political areas, and yet many are  leading the way in promoting renewable-energy offerings — outside of Louisiana, that is.

Renewable-energy offerings by electric cooperatives in other states include community solar, whereby residents unable to install solar-energy panels on their homes can lease or own a small “block” of solar panels in a large field of them, typically constructed, owned, and/or managed by the utility. Rural electric cooperatives have installed twice as many of these community-solar projects as have investor-owned or municipal utilities, combined, but again, not in Louisiana. We remain one of only seven states without any community-solar projects at all. None. Zip. Nada.

By contrast consider Georgia’s Walton Electric Membership Corporation. A few years ago Walton installed its first community-solar field, comprising 750 blocks of solar panels.  Member-owners typically bought or leased two or three panels at a time.

The program was so popular that the 750 blocks sold out within a week of its online debut. A second installation sold out before construction was even completed.

“ ‘I’m proud of what you’re doing’ – we heard that all the time,” said Greg Brooks, Walton’s director of community and public relations. “We got a tremendous public-relations benefit out of this even before we sold a kilowatt.”

The co-op has since constructed a third, even larger solar installation.

Walton is not the only Georgia electric cooperative to offer community solar. When the state’s Coastal Electric Cooperative announced a community solar project, “We had a waiting list of 60 members before the program was even offered,” said co-op energy adviser Jason Smith.  “People love community solar. They want it as quick as we can give it to them.”

Or how about Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina?  Curtis Wynn, the co-op’s chief executive, views community solar as more than just a way to offer members a piece of the renewable-energy pie. “Our community solar project was created in the same spirit that drove the creation of our co-op more than 75 years ago when electricity was out of reach for its residents,” Wynn said. He sees strategic placement of the community solar sites as a way to buffer the strength of their grid and minimize outages.

The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative (FKEC) brought its community solar program online more than 10 years ago, making it one of the first in the South. The launch was sucker-punched by the great recession and membership has lagged, but the co-op’s enthusiasm for community solar is undeterred.  “I think it’s one of the best decisions we ever made to get on the green bandwagon,” said T.J. Patterson, KFEC’s member service representative.

Michele Johnson, shown campaigning in Slidell , lost the election but sees growing support for renewables. Credit: Kevin Fitzwilliam

In Louisiana where co-op board candidate Johnson started knocking on doors to introduce ideas such as community solar to North Shore business owners, it was anyone’s guess how they would be received. “I was surprised at the positive response to the message of clean energy. Only about three people had a negative reaction,” Johnson said.

One supporter was Doug Hill, owner of Underhill Bonsai in Folsom. “Out here in the country, we’re not used to thinking in very progressive ways,” Hill said. “People in the country can tend to resist change.  But the results of this election can raise the profile of these viewpoints on progressive energy policies.

“Small co-ops such as WST, because they simply buy and distribute electricity rather than generate electricity, they are at the whim of larger forces,” Hill said, adding.”so it seems to me that if you are a co-op like WST, you need to be worried about larger producers driving up the prices.  And if you’re able to focus on alternative energy, it opens up options that could mean a lot to us as customers.”

Another of Johnson’s chief supporters was Abita Springs resident LeAnn Magee, chair of the Abita Committee for Energy Sustainability, a citizens group instrumental in leading the town to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2030.

“I think member-owners were delighted to be asked their opinions,” Magee said of Johnson’s campaign.  “We found that, not only is there interest (in clean energy), but that people are disappointed in policy makers for not supporting their right to create power at home, return power to the grid at a fair rate, and even more broadly, support large utility companies who want to install large solar farms.

“Southerners are adamant about homeowners’ rights, and solar is a big part of their energy independence.  People are also curious about the latest technology.

“Our rural co-op does a great job of praising our hardworking linemen, but rarely do we get a glimpse into the inner workings of the organization,” Magee added. “Michele’s relative success shows that member-owners are interested in how their utility obtains power, but also how the business is organized.”

There are more people working in renewable energy and energy efficiency than there are in oil and gas.

Johnson also promoted an energy-efficiency program that allows co-op member-owners to pay for residential energy-efficiency upgrades through a tariff on their bill rather than through a one-time, up-front charge. “Several people at higher socio-economic levels were interested in renewables,” Johnson said. But what “really connected” with lower-income customers was an energy-efficiency program that would let customers finance improvements with savings as they were realized.

The “Upgrade to $ave program,” as it is styled by the Roanoke Electric Cooperative, allows homeowners to space out the cost of energy-efficiency upgrades to their air conditioning, insulation, light bulbs, and other energy-saving measures over a series of increments on their bill, rather than paying that full cost when the installation is made.

Roanoke’s Wynn considers the program to be a major success, one he urges other utility directors to adopt.  At the time Roanoke began its program, there were already 100 homeowners on the waiting list to take advantage of the program.

Arkansas’ Ouachita Electric Cooperative runs a similar program. Member-owners receive a no-cost home assessment valued at $300.  An energy-efficiency contractor provides a list of energy recommendations the homeowner could act upon in order to save money.  Rather than writing a check all at once for those improvements, the homeowner can pay monthly on their electric bill to cover those costs.

Not only do these programs help homeowners lower electric bills and make their homes more comfortable, but the work needed to complete energy-efficiency upgrades is done by contractors whose jobs cannot be outsourced to a foreign country and whose business helps to improve retail sales in the area through purchase of insulation, energy­-efficient lights, etc. Participants can even choose to work with contractors who hire target workers, such as veterans or at­-risk youth.

Johnson’s campaign for the electric board was a positive experience for her and her team, even if it did not deliver a clear-cut victory. She’s looking ahead. Of the 2,000 votes she garnered, she said, “I hope that the board and the management of WST appreciates that those votes were not for me specifically, but for the ideas I promoted.  Electric cooperatives present a good opportunity to promote renewables and efficiency, especially because of the opportunity for input from the customer/owners. Those owners gave their input in supporting me.”

Johnson is considering another run for election next year. Meanwhile, she plans to continue to meet with community members and try to find other candidates in Washington and Tangipahoa parishes who support renewables. “I’d also like to start getting some of the customers to start calling, emailing their desire for these programs and see how far we can get,” Johnson said.

Last year, clean-energy jobs in the United States grew by nearly 4 percent to about 3.3 million. There are more people working in renewable energy and energy efficiency than there are in oil and gas.  Member-owned utilities in other Southern states are playing a role in creating many of those jobs. The question for Louisiana: Will our co-ops begin to make the same wise choice?

Kevin Fitzwilliam is an environmental entrepreneur who has worked in renewable energy and energy efficiency in Louisiana since 2014.  In 2017 he created Atlas Handmade Beads, a New Orleans-based company selling handcrafted necklaces and bracelets that are made from recycled magazine paper by women in Uganda.  He can be contacted at kfitzwilliam@gmail.com.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.