Council, environmental coalition announce plans to increase city’s renewable energy portfolio

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City Councilwoman and utility committee chair Helena Moreno announced plans on Tuesday for three solar generation projects that, according to a press release, would represent a 20-fold increase in the amount of New Orleans power coming from renewables. 

The package of solar projects includes a 20 megawatt plant in eastern New Orleans and two power purchase agreements for 70 megawatts from solar facilities in Washington and St. James Parishes. 

“This is nothing less than a transformational moment for the City of New Orleans,” Moreno said in the press release. “If anything, this past week again reminds us we are in fact, a coastal city with a vulnerable population on the very front lines of climate change. Therefore, we must take bold steps to address the crisis head-on.”

She added that the average residential Entergy customer would only pay $1.50 more on their monthly bills to make the proposal a reality. 

Also on Tuesday, a coalition of prominent local consumer and environmental advocates submitted a plan to the City Council that calls for the city to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. The group, which calls itself the Energy Future New Orleans Coalition, includes the Alliance for Affordable Energy, Audubon Louisiana, the Sierra Club, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and 350 New Orleans. 

In March, the City Council began the process of implementing a renewable portfolio standard for Entergy New Orleans, the city’s electrical utility. Renewable portfolio standards, at their most basic level, require increased production of energy through renewable sources. They can also include provisions for equitable access for low-income residents, resilience goals and measures to contain costs for customers. 

According to the council, 29 states, Washington D.C and three U.S. territories have implemented renewable portfolio standards. Unlike in New Orleans, where the City Council is responsible for regulating Entergy New Orleans, most utility regulation is done at the state level. 

As the Council noted in its March resolution, these plans range in aggressiveness. Washington D.C., for example, is committed to switching to 100 percent renewables by 2032. On the other hand, North Carolina’s renewable portfolio standard only requires the adoption of 12.5 percent renewables by 2021. 

The New Orleans coalition’s plan falls on the more ambitious side of the spectrum, demanding 40 percent renewables in just 10 years and 100 percent renewables by 2040. The potential 90 megawatts of additional solar generation announced by Moreno is a step in that direction.

In 2017, Entergy New Orleans’ former CEO, Charles Rice Jr., said that the company had voluntarily committed to “pursue up to 100 megawatts of renewable resources.” But until now, there’s been little movement on that promise. Altogether, Entergy New Orleans has only installed roughly 4.5 megawatts of renewable generation, according to Moreno’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Tuozzollo. 

Entergy New Orleans’ parent company, Entergy Corp. — which generates and sells electricity throughout the state and the region — recently set a carbon reduction goal that actually allows it to release higher total annual carbon emissions in 2030 than it had achieved in 2017. 

The proposal announced by Moreno will come up for discussion at Wednesday’s council utility committee meeting, which starts at noon. 

A potential zero carbon future 

The March resolution directed the city’s team of contracted utility consultants to submit draft renewable portfolio standard requirements and submit them to the council by Sept. 2. That hasn’t happened yet. But the advisers’ plan will have a rival in the proposal submitted by the Energy Future New Orleans Coalition on Tuesday.

That proposal does not mention how a potential new gas plant in eastern New Orleans — approved by the City Council in 2018 — would figure into a transition to 100 percent renewable energy. The plan, however, does include “accelerated retirement dates” for fossil-fuel plants. The status of the proposed plant is in question following a judge’s order earlier this month voiding the council’s vote. The council is seeking an appeal of that ruling

Along with a timetable to transition to renewable energy sources, the coalition’s plan includes measures to keep costs low for customers and local and diversity hiring requirements for renewable energy contractors. 

“It is a central pillar of the [resilient and renewable portfolio standard] to provide economic opportunity for low-income communities in New Orleans, through programs that produce bill savings and new local workforce opportunities in the energy services industry, and to ensure that the costs and benefits of the program are equitably shared,” the coalition’s proposal says. 

“Also at the core of the program design is the desire to achieve an electric system in New Orleans that is more resilient, by hardening critical infrastructure with stand-alone microgrids and providing opportunities for customers to install and utilize resilient renewable energy resources that can provide emergency power during outage conditions.” 

The proposal identifies three categories of renewable generation that the city can pursue. The largest are “Tier 3” resources, which include large scale utility generation and purchases from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator market. This would provide up to 70 percent of New Orleans’ power when it reaches the 100 percent renewables goal. 

“Tier 1” and “tier 2” resources would make up at least 30 percent of the portfolio. These are smaller-scale, community-based, distributed generation sources. They include rooftop solar, local battery storage, community solar projects and microgrids. These energy sources, the proposal argues, give residents more agency over their energy usage and can provide stability during black outs. 

The proposal also suggests ways to make the transition more palatable to Entergy New Orleans. It suggests that the council should investigate new “performance-related incentives” that would reward the company for moving through the transition faster than scheduled. 

On the other hand, there would be financial penalties if Entergy is not achieving the renewable energy benchmarks set out by the proposal. That money would go into a “Public Purpose Fund,” which would be dedicated to programs for low-income customers.

A spokeswoman for Entergy New Orleans did not respond to a request for comment. 

The coalition’s proposal represents a major change for the city. But, its authors argue, the goals are much more realistic than they were even five years ago. 

“The market is showing that renewable energy sources are getting cheaper by the day,” said Monique Harden, the assistant director of law and policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. 

And, Harden said, a sea change is exactly what New Orleans needs in the face of climate change. 

“The way in which we as a city come together to respond to major storm and flood events in the Gulf, we need the same level of attention and concern in terms of our energy sources,” she said.

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