St. James Parish, home to about a dozen petrochemical plants, may soon vote to ban the construction of solar panel farms within its jurisdiction – an action that environmental groups say would unfairly target green energy development.
The parish council, which voted earlier this month to table a solar farm moratorium introduced by parish President Pete Dufrense and to engage with a third-party entity to study the economic and environmental impacts of such projects, may still decide to impose a ban as early as Wednesday evening.
“There really is no need for a moratorium unless what the parish wants to do is send a big signal to the renewable energy industries that they’re not open for business,” Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, told The Lens.
The moratorium wouldn’t “do anything that the parish council doesn’t already have the authority to do independently,” she said. “It just says we don’t want you here, which is the worst possible situation.”
Dufrense did not respond to a request for comment.
In May, the parish’s planning commission rejected the applications submitted by the D.E. Shaw Renewables Investment – a New York-based hedge fund that manages more than $60 billion in assets – for a solar farm, consisting of various projects, that would have encompassed 3,900 acres in the parish. The company, DESRI, already owns and operates a 200 acre solar farm in St. James.
Victor Franckiewicz, Jr. adjunct assistant professor at Tulane University, who provides counsel to the parish regarding land use matters, suggested during the July 6 meeting that the council consider a series of guidelines in lieu of a moratorium, while the study is completed.
Those guidelines, based on public comments, would include the loss of viable agricultural land for sugarcane crops, which could exert negative downstream effects on the local economy, and the potential interference with future development in the area. The council did not take up his suggestion.
Still, the council currently possesses the discretion, even without a moratorium in place, to approve or reject solar projects on individual bases, Franckiewicz said during the meeting.
The proposed site would have been built on downriver private property, near the intersection of Louisiana State Highways 3127 and 20, eventually stretching to Louisiana Highway 18. Most of the petrochemical and other industrial facilities in the parish are located upriver, in the majority-Black, lower-income 4th and 5th districts.
There are 11 so-called toxic release inventory sites in St. James Parish, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which refer to facilities that emit potentially harmful toxins. Overall, there are more than 30 industrial sites in the parish.
For decades, the parish lacked a master plan for zoning and maintained a largely laissez-faire policy regarding the construction of industrial facilities, Justin Kray, cartographer with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade told The Lens.
It wasn’t until 2014 that the parish first established a comprehensive land use plan. In the nearly ten years since that ordinance has been on the books, the council has still allowed, if not encouraged, the proliferation of industrial projects in certain parts of the parish, Kray said – namely, near the majority-Black, upriver communities. The heightened level of scrutiny the council is applying towards solar projects is a rather sharp contrast to that approach, he said.
The fact that the council is working with a third-party group, the South Central Planning & Development Commission, to commission a study is a “tacit acknowledgement that there’s potential risks – people’s interests that might be impinged by a solar farm,” Kray said. “But why then wouldn’t you do that kind of study for a massive, new carcinogen-emitting plant?”
The council has not historically conducted those kinds of studies for the heavy industrial sites in the parish, Kray said. According to a report issued by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the council opposed, in recent memory, two projects that were set to be constructed near majority-white communities.
The council has also refused to consider a moratorium on petrochemical projects in the parish, Sharon Lavigne, founder of the environmental justice group RISE St. James, said during the council meeting earlier this month. Lavigne called on the parish to implement a moratorium on petrochemical plants and related infrastructure in 2019.
“What’s the worse thing for us: petrochemical plants [that are] poisoning us, giving us cancer, making us sick – or the solar panels?” Lavigne asked rhetorically. “We are bombarded, we don’t need any more [petrochemical plants], but you want to put a moratorium on solar panels. Before you vote to put a moratorium on [solar panels], put a moratorium on petrochemical facilities.”
Meanwhile, the utility company Entergy, which has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, is paying close attention to the parish’s actions regarding a potential moratorium. Entergy has announced plans to derive more than 300 megawatts from the solar farms in St. James parish.
“While a moratorium in St. James Parish would not represent an imminent threat to Entergy’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, it would prevent a faster path to a renewable energy future, and could have long term implications to reaching net-zero by 2050,” a spokesperson for Entergy, Brandon Scardigli, conveyed to The Lens in a written statement.
The construction of solar panel farms would benefit Entergy’s customers, who are currently being hammered by the rising costs of electricity, due to the increased price of natural gas – which accounts for 60% of the utility’s sourcing, Mark Kleehammer, a representative for Entergy said during the July 6 meeting. Only 2% of Entergy’s fuel mix is derived from renewable sources.
Still, each parish faces unique circumstances, and solar farms may not be the right development choice for each one, Terrence Chambers, director of the energy efficiency and sustainable energy center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told The Lens.
“At the same time that some parishes are putting a pause or perhaps pumping the brakes on solar development, other parishes are attempting to ramp up solar development and trying to prepare their parish to be open for solar business,” Chambers said. “I don’t foresee a future where there’s not some place in the state to build solar power plants.”
Washington and Tangipahoa Parishes have implemented solar construction moratoria, while St. Helena Parish has appeared more welcoming of such projects.
Over the next 10 years, the amount of solar projects in the state would generate, at most, approximately 7,000 megawatts, or seven gigawatts, he said. (Entergy’s entire network, which operates in four states, generates approximately 24,000 megawatts.)
In order to reach that capacity, solar panel farms would need to operate on approximately 49,000 acres of land, he said – which should be feasible, considering that the state contains 8 million acres of farmland.
“Out of 8 million agricultural acres, I don’t think that’s going to fundamentally change anything,” Chambers said, referring to the concerns he’s heard people raise about the proliferation of solar panels altering the agrarian character of parts of the state.
The question for St. James Parish specifically is whether or not the decisiveness the council has demonstrated for the question of solar farm projects can be applied to the other types of construction that residents have asked the council to halt, Kray said.
“This kind of shows some political will that’s there – that I believe could be, needs to be worked further,” he said. “If you’re willing, if you’re interested in applying some degree of analysis about the suitability of something, then that shows you’re willing to take that step. How do we get them to start making that step for petrochemical?”