On Thursday morning, as federal energy secretary Jennifer Granholm entered the church in LaPlace, the Rev. Shawn Anglim cued the crowd to sing.
“Let us rejoice, when the solar power comes and the lighthouse shines,” sang the crowd at New Wine Christian Fellowship, adapting the lyrics of “Come, Let Us Sing,” a traditional African-American hymn.
At New Wine, the lighthouse can shine even when the storms come, which is why Granholm paid a visit to the non-denominational church during her two-day trip to Louisiana.
From the main section of the church, Neil Bernard, a senior pastor, led Granholm outdoors to a patio. Next to a playground, sat a new 440 kilowatt-hour battery, ready to store electrical power collected by the roof’s new commercial-scale solar panels. The electricity created by the new 167.4 kWdc solar array and back-up battery will significantly cut the church’s electricity bills.
During power outages, the electricity will continue, making it a hub and a shelter for residents in St. John the Baptist Parish, the most climate-vulnerable parish in the state.
New Wine’s “lighthouse,” part of an initiative called the Community Lighthouse Project, was constructed by union electricians and spearheaded by Together Louisiana, a network of more than 250 religious congregations and civic organizations across the state.
Eighteen months ago, Together New Orleans launched what they call “a network of solar- and battery-powered resilience hubs.” The need for such a network had become grimly apparent several months before that, in the fall of 2021, when Hurricane Ida triggered prolonged grid failure, leaving much of the city of New Orleans without power for nine days. Parts of LaPlace were dark much longer.
More than two thirds of the storm’s fatalities in the greater New Orleans area were attributed to power outages. All along the Gulf Coast, power outages have become a leading cause of death during severe storms.
Even as the post-Ida darkness dragged on, it shed light on a bigger issue: the inequality and vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid.
Because risk and damage from storms, floods and infrastructure failures are tied to societal inequities, vulnerable populations in Louisiana experience more frequent and prolonged power outages, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
During Hurricane Ida, St. John Parish experienced the harshest flooding. Disaster crews rescued nearly 800 people from the 17 inches of rain and 5 feet of storm surge. Even then, before New Wine built its lighthouse, the church served as a shelter for residents and for the thousands of volunteers who came to LaPlace to help rebuild.
The parish was without electricity for three weeks and without water for two weeks, Bernard said. Now, he hopes that the Community Lighthouse can provide for his neighbors.
The new solar array will help defray electricity costs throughout the year. But now, the next time that the grid goes down, battery storage will restore power so that the resilience hub can assess resident needs for medical devices and other necessities and provide aid to residents. The stored electricity will be used to provide cooling and heating stations, charging stations, oxygen exchange, light medical equipment and other critical services.
Statewide, the Community Lighthouse in LaPlace is the seventh such resilience hub to become operational. It is by far the largest. To date, the six other operational lighthouses are in New Orleans, where the ultimate goal is to build 86 locations, putting lighthouses within a 15-minute walk from any point in the city.
Already at this point, the Community Lighthouse Project is the nation’s largest network of solar-powered resilience hubs. Together Louisiana is supporting the efforts to build resilience hubs throughout the state, with North Louisiana Interfaith planning a network of 20 across Caddo Parish and Together Baton Rouge planning six.
Together Louisiana leaders see it as an investment in clean, renewable energy and a way to build a better workforce, by helping local residents be trained in solar installation. The project is being financed by philanthropic and government funding, including $250 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, to expand renewable energy resiliency and create over 350 microgrid hubs across the state. The Energy Department’s investment requires an additional $250 million in matching funds. In total, that’s a $500 million commitment to Community Lighthouse.
Though disaster planning is often conducted at broad levels – by federal, state and city officials – the lighthouse idea came from everyday people who identified a problem that needed to be solved, said Evelyn Turner, a leader with Together New Orleans. “Eighteen months ago, in the sweltering heat, we decided enough was enough and we needed to create a solution for our own communities. Today is a testament to that.”
A Plea for Clean, Renewable Energy
Granholm called the LaPlace project both an inspiration and a necessity, “because the last few years of weather events are just the tip of the iceberg unless we get our act together and reduce our carbon pollution.”
Yet some activists in Southwest Louisiana believe that Granholm should have taken time during her recent two-day visit to the state to examine the effects of continued investment in other energy projects—specifically Liquified Natural Gas export terminals.
Natural gas mostly consists of methane, a greenhouse gas with emissions that are so far responsible for as much as 40% of global warming. Though natural gas has been marketed as a “cleaner” fuel, recent research has determined that natural gas is not better for the climate than burning coal, because large amounts of methane leak from the supercooled gas during transit.
Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exportation from the Gulf Coast only began in 2016, as the nation accumulated a surplus of natural gas through fracking. So far, seven export terminals have been built, with at least 20 more planned. Several are planned for Southwest Louisiana, including Cameron Parish, where the terminal sites would replace what are now 1,700 acres of wetlands.
If all of the terminals are built, an extra 3.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be released per year – close to the entire annual emissions of the European Union, according to energy consultant and former Environmental Protection Agency climate-policy adviser Jeremy Symons.
On Wednesday, the day before Granholm’s visit to New Wine, commercial fisherman Travis Dardar had asked Granholm to visit Cameron Parish, to see the “devastating impacts” that the seafood industry has experienced from the Venture Global LNG export terminal on Calcasieu Pass, south of Lake Charles.
Additionally, Venture Global’s proposed second LNG export terminal in Cameron Parish is the largest planned facility in the country. It would produce over 20 times the annual emissions from burning the oil to be produced at the recently approved Willow drilling project in Alaska, according to the Sierra Club.
On Thursday morning, activists from parishes with LNG terminals traveled to New Wine to call on Granholm and the Biden administration to stop the expansion of LNG export terminals along the Gulf Coast. James Hiatt and Bre Robinson hand-delivered a letter to Granholm coauthored by For a Better Bayou and the Vessel Project of Louisiana that urged the administration to disinvest in natural gas and carbon-capture projects.
“Right now, the Department of Energy is putting billions of dollars into new technologies that are supposed to clean up air pollution and capture carbon,” said Roishetta Ozane, founder of the Vessel Project, an environmental justice and mutual-aid organization in Southwest Louisiana.
Though the LNG terminals provide liquified natural gas to overseas communities, they come with no larger benefit to Louisiana communities. In fact, they have the potential to cause harm through emissions and other environmental toxins, Ozane said.
The letter called for the Department of Energy to divert money earmarked for these “false solutions” — that are not proven to work as intended — and instead invest it into long-term renewable energy projects, Hiatt said.
A Glance Into Community Solar
Bernard said that, with the new solar array, electricity costs will decrease by about 65% for New Wine Christian Fellowship. But many Louisiana residents are still waiting for solar energy to help lower their own electric bills.
The Community Lighthouse network has the potential to transform the state’s approach to building resiliency for climate change and other natural disasters. It will provide full power at a few of the network’s community centers, such as Household of Faith, a non-denominational church in New Orleans East with 4,000 mostly Black parishioners.
Other community solar projects were launched to provide solar energy directly to homeowners and renters. The distinction between community solar and the Community Lighthouse project lies in how the electricity is used when there isn’t a storm.
At Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious order of African-American Catholic women in New Orleans East, leader Sister Alicia Christina Costa wants to use 22 acres of the church’s property to build a solar farm to help people struggling to pay their utility bills.
In late October, the New Orleans City Council overhauled a long-dormant community solar program to help developers afford the upfront cost. That created a more favorable rate for solar energy for the sisters and other organizers, who hope to construct solar arrays that will feed into the local grid, providing low-income residents with credits toward their Entergy bills, while others could buy into the project.
That would provide a beacon of its own, by allowing residents to maintain their power even when overwhelmed with bills.
“We have always worked for the poor,” said Costa. “This is a big issue. We have people in our city whose electricity is being turned off daily because they cannot afford it.”