The St. James Parish Council rejected a proposed solar farm moratorium Wednesday evening, clearing the way for potential future construction in the parish where a developer has already proposed a large-scale project that would encompass nearly 4,000 acres of sugar cane farmland.
None of the six council members who were present Wednesday (Councilmember Jason Amato was absent) moved to vote on the moratorium, originally proposed by Parish President Pete Dufrense, effectively killing the measure. The moratorium was on Wednesday’s agenda because the council voted earlier this month to table it.
With the proposed moratorium out of the picture, the seven-member council will now likely engage in a months-long process to draft an ordinance that would apply to solar farm projects in the parish, Tripp Roy, director of renewable development at D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments (DESRI), the developer that proposed the 3,900 acre project, told The Lens.
“They’re just beginning the process of starting to draft a solar ordinance that would govern all new projects and set the rules,” Roy said. “In my experience, when we’ve seen this elsewhere in the state, that’s a process that can take several months, from the drafting of all the public hearings, and then eventually passing it. But we’re supportive of an ordinance as long as it’s reasonable and fair.”
The council voted earlier this month to table the moratorium introduced by Dufrense, and to engage with a third-party entity to study the economic and environmental impacts of such projects.
Even without a moratorium in place, the council still possesses the discretion to approve or deny solar farm projects on individual bases. The council is working with a third-party group, the South Central Planning & Development Commission, to study the economic and environmental impacts of such projects – which DESRI has asked to participate in.
In May, the parish’s planning commission rejected the applications submitted by DESRI – 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 comprised 3,900 acres in the parish. The company already owns and operates a 200 acre solar farm in St. James that feeds energy to the Entergy New Orleans network.
DESRI would need to reapply with the planning commission for its project, Roy said, which the company plans to do after the council enacts an ordinance governing solar farms.
The parish is home to more than 30 industrial sites, of which about a dozen are petrochemical plants. Most of the heavy industry is 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 that release potentially harmful toxins, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dickie Gravois, who’s leasing 2,600 acres to DESRI for the project, told reporters he’s concerned with passing the land onto the next generation of his family, and that he’s satisfied the solar farm will prove to be a good, and environmentally-friendly, neighbor. Gravois bought the land in 1991 and 1996, he said.
“Look, this cane business is getting tougher and tougher,” Gravois said. “It’s good to be diversified.”
The proposed site would have been built on downriver private property, near the intersection of Louisiana State Highways 3127 and 20, stretching to Louisiana Highway 18.
The utility company Entergy, which has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, had been 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.
The construction of solar panel farms would reduce the “sky high” bills Entergy’s customers are facing, Yovanka Daniel, vice president of customer service for Entergy Louisiana, told the council Wednesday. Approximately 60 percent of Entergy’s fuel mix is natural gas, the price of which has spiked recently. Only two percent of Entergy’s portfolio is derived from renewable sources.
Meanwhile, some residents of the parish have expressed concern about the project. Based on public comments, Victor Franckiewicz, adjunct assistant professor at Tulane University who provides counsel to the parish regarding land use matters, suggested during a July 6 meeting that the council consider a series of guidelines in lieu of a moratorium while the study is completed.
Those guidelines would have included the loss of viable agricultural land for sugarcane crops, which may exert negative downstream effects on the local economy, and the potential interference with future development in the area – but the council did not adopt his suggestion.
For his part, Councilmemman Donald Nash told The Lens on Wednesday that while he supports solar technology, he’s concerned that projects adjacent to people’s homes would harm property values. He’s not in favor of the 3,900 acre project as it was proposed, he said.
“I haven’t run across anybody that’s actually against solar panels,” Nash said. “The majority of people are concerned about the value of property over that period of time.”
But there are ways to substantially reduce the conspicuousness of solar farms, Roy told The Lens. Options include constructing fences or vegetative screens and setting the projects back reasonable distances from other properties. Those “setbacks” could even allow for future commercial development in the area, he said.
For Gravois, the discussion has seemed to lay bare conflicting worldviews between landowners’ rights to do as they please with their property, within reason, versus the parish’s mandate to govern those choices.
“I have landowner responsibility, but where were y’all when I was eating grass, paying for this land?”