Councilwoman Helena Moreno at a December 2019 City Council meeting (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

A New Orleans City Council committee advanced an ordinance on Wednesday that would largely prohibit the city government from purchasing or leasing fossil-fuel powered passenger vehicles starting in 2025, if it’s approved by the full council.

The committee also voted in favor of another non-binding resolution that would encourage the city to work towards using 100 percent renewable energy for all city government operations — including city buildings and streetlights — and the Sewerage and Water Board by 2025. 

Both items will be considered by the full City Council on Thursday. 

Wednesday was the first meeting of the council’s new Climate and Sustainability Committee, which was created by Councilwoman Helena Moreno in November. Moreno said the move to electric vehicles and renewable energy is an urgent necessity to combat the effects of climate change.

“We must take significant action now,” Moreno said at the meeting. “Storms are coming at us so much faster, and they’re stronger. We can’t afford to make excuses.”

The two council items mirror President Joe Biden’s recent decision to make federal government vehicles and buildings carbon neutral in the coming decades. Perhaps more important than the direct reduction in greenhouse emissions, experts say, is that the pocketbook influence of the federal government could help shift markets, speeding up the pace of private electric vehicle adoption and utility-scale renewable energy.

The vehicle ordinance presented on Wednesday wouldn’t require New Orleans’ city government to replace its entire fleet by 2025. Rather, it only mandates that any new passenger vehicles purchased after that point would have to be electric, or any other type of vehicle with zero tailpipe emissions. 

Even before that zero-emissions mandate would go into effect, the ordinance states that starting next year, the city can only purchase or lease vehicles that meet certain greenhouse gas emissions standards.

The ordinance would allow the city’s Chief Administrator’s Office to make exemptions on a case-by-case basis if there is a  “substantial public-safety justification” for purchasing a greenhouse gas emitting vehicle.  The ordinance would also require the CAO to issue annual reports to the council on the state of the city’s vehicle fleet and the city’s progress in phasing out fossil fuel vehicles. 

It’s unclear what the ordinance will mean for the city’s bottom line. The council didn’t present a complete financial analysis of what a transition would cost, or how many vehicles the city purchases in an average year. 

Electric cars remain significantly more expensive than fossil-fuel powered vehicles. And the city will have to work to build out enough charging stations to make the switch feasible. 

Federal funding will be vital to achieving the fleet electrification goals. Tom Haysley, principal planner for the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, told the committee on Wednesday that there are billions of dollars currently available to build out electric vehicle charging stations through the recent federal bipartisan infrastructure act. And, he said, the Biden administration was changing the rules of a number of federal programs that will allow them to support fleet electrification. 

Haysley also presented numbers showing that over time, electric vehicles cost less than half of what gas-powered vehicles cost in fuel and maintenance expenses. And he predicted that electric vehicles will eventually have a cheaper upfront cost than gas vehicles.

The resolution considered on Wednesday to switch city operations to 100 percent renewables by 2025 is non-binding, meaning the city wouldn’t be legally obligated to follow that timeline. Moreno called it an important “first step.” She said that if the resolution was approved on Thursday, the next step would likely be to initiate a lengthy regulatory process used by the City Council to tackle complex utility issues, called a “docket.”

In a presentation, clean energy consultant Andy Kowalczyk said that there were over 40 U.S. cities that have already been able to reach 100 percent renewable energy for city buildings and other city operations. 

“This is a very realistic yet very important goal,” Kowalczyk said

Kowalczyk and Moreno agreed that one of the most promising routes to achieve this goal would be through so-called “power purchase agreements” — in which the city would enter agreements directly with Entergy or independent renewable power producers to ensure they’re purchasing renewable energy. 

“The way that we do accomplish it is by these power purchase agreements,” Moreno said. “I think for city facilities this could move pretty quickly.”

She said the transition for the Sewerage and Water Board could be more complicated, since it produces a lot of its own power through diesel and gas generators, instead of solely relying on Entergy. 

“We would need to look at what their path looks like,” Moreno said. “It’s obviously going to take more time and we need to be realistic about that. That doesn’t mean they can’t start now.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...