The St. James Parish Council on Wednesday approved a commercial solar farm moratorium that could last through the end of March 2023, while a study, commissioned by the parish, on the economic and environmental impacts of such projects remains pending.
The council approved the moratorium in a 6-1 vote. The measure will restrict the consideration and approval of large-scale solar projects in one of the state’s most densely industrialized pockets until the South Central Planning Commission completes its impact study, or until March 31, 2023 — whichever occurs later.
The council already had the power to deny such projects on a case-by-case basis. But a blanket pause will allow for a substantive review of the solar industry’s impact on the parish, Councilmember Vondra Etienne-Steib said prior to the vote.
“This is an opportunity for me to learn more about the solar panels and the environmental impact it would have on our communities,” she said. “And when the time does come for us to vote on the solar panels, I want my vote to be based on facts, concrete evidence,” rather than “personal opinions.”
The council’s decision to implement a moratorium follows a recent proposal from D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments — part of the D.E. Shaw Group, a New York-based hedge fund that manages more than $60 billion in assets — to build a solar farm that would have encompassed 3,900 acres in the parish. DESRI already owns and operates a 200 acre solar farm in St. James. The proposed site for the project was a property near the intersection of Louisiana State Highways 3127 and 20, stretching to Louisiana Highway 18.
The parish’s planning commission rejected the applications submitted by DESRI in May. Following the unsuccessful plan, St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne proposed a moratorium on large solar farms.
The issue has come up in previous council meetings, but until this week, council members did not vote to give final approval to a moratorium.
“We support the parish’s diligence in completing economic and environmental studies to learn fully of the benefits of solar to the parish,” Tripp Roy, director of renewable development at DESRI, told The Lens via email after Wednesday’s vote took place. Roy also spoke before the council prior to its vote.
“We also support the passage of a reasonable solar-specific siting ordinance that will set forth a clear permitting process,” he said. “Our only quibble is with the duration of the moratorium—the reasonable steps above shouldn’t take over 7 months.”
The DESRI project would support hundreds of jobs during construction and a handful of jobs once it’s up and running, Roy said during the council’s public hearing, and would provide “well north of $20 million” in tax revenue — of which a large portion would be furnished upfront in the form of sales taxes.
‘How many more have to die because of you all?’
Entergy, which provides electricity to much of the state, has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The company has been paying close attention to the parish’s actions regarding a potential moratorium. Entergy has announced plans to derive more than 300 megawatts from solar farms in St. James parish, including the proposed DESRI farm. Just 2% of the company’s energy portfolio currently comes from renewable energy.
Phillip May, the president and CEO of Entergy subsidiary Entergy Louisiana, spoke in support of solar projects during Wednesday’s hearing.
“If we cannot provide no or low-carbon electricity, then we’ll miss out on a huge opportunity for expansion in this parish and across our state, and the investments and jobs that come with that,” May said, adding that 54% of the utility’s sales are to industrial customers, which are in the market for renewable-sourced energy.
“Extending a moratorium longer than necessary risks new expansions, risks new jobs, new opportunities for this parish,” he said, while noting that he’s in favor of the council performing its due diligence as it considers solar energy projects.
But local resident Jude Poche was left unimpressed with the small number of permanent jobs the project would bring, and was concerned with, among other things, the aesthetic impact the solar farm might have.
“Nobody in this room is against solar panels. Nobody in this room is against green energy,” he said. “You know what we don’t want? We don’t want it to be in our backyard.”
Sharon Lavigne, founder of the environmental justice group RISE St. James, was sympathetic to Poche’s concern, agreeing that solar projects shouldn’t intrude upon the lives of local residents. But, she said, in the heavily industrial River Parishes, many residents are already dealing with a far worse intrusion: petrochemical facilities. That is especially true for predominantly Black areas in St. James Parish, Lavigne said. She urged the council to approve a moratorium on new petrochemical projects instead.
“We need a moratorium on petrochemical facilities because this is Cancer Alley and people are dying,” she said, referring to the name ascribed by some to the highly-industrialized corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. “How many more have to die because of you all?”
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.
Jo Banner, resident of Vacherie and co-founder of the Descendants Project, who recently traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to testify before the United Nations about Cancer Alley, shared Lavigne’s sentiment.
“I got back home, hoping to get some rest. But I was shocked to hear that solar projects are trying to be totally wiped out,” Banner said. “We need different industries, we need healthier industries.
“I get covered, my home gets covered, our cars get covered in red dust — in particulate matter,” from the industrial activities near her home, she said. “If you’re going to do a moratorium on anything, that’s what you should be focusing on.”