When the next major storm strikes New Orleans, the Sisters of the Holy Family motherhouse will shine as a beacon for New Orleans East. 

“Follow the light to 6901 Chef Menteur Highway and that will lead you to God’s light,” said Oliver Thomas, who represents the East in the City Council, as he stood on the roof of the convent on Wednesday morning, to launch construction of the city’s newest Community Lighthouse.  

Because power outages are frequent during hurricane season – and proved deadly during the 10-day outage that followed Hurricane Ida in 2021 – the Community Lighthouse project aims to create a microgrid resilience hub within every Louisiana neighborhood. Each site – usually a church or a community center – receives solar panels and backup batteries so that it can maintain power when the grid fails. 

Beyond power, the sites are set up to be all-purpose, solar-powered disaster hubs, becoming go-to emergency destinations for neighbors who need a cooling center, charging stations and food distribution.

The Lighthouse project was set in motion after Ida by Together New Orleans, a coalition of 54 congregations and community-based organizations. On Wednesday, the coalition kicked off construction of its 12th Lighthouse at the Sisters of the Holy Family motherhouse in front of neighbors, students and alumni of the Louisiana Green Corps, and city officials including Thomas and a few of his colleagues, including City Council President Helena Moreno.

The tone of the ceremony was set by members of the iconic Black Catholic order, which is devoted to serving the poor, elderly and sick of New Orleans. Beyond the Community Lighthouse, that history of service is reflected in the project’s emphasis on creating good-paying jobs for Black workers—and in a second, unrelated, Holy Family solar project that is intended to help New Orleans East neighbors bring down their monthly light bills.

Three of the 15 Community Lighthouses are outside of New Orleans, including, most recently, one built in climate-vulnerable St. John the Baptist Parish

In New Orleans East, nearly 80,000 people will benefit from the new Lighthouse, Thomas said.

After Ida, New Orleans East residents, particularly on the east side of Chef Menteur Pass, were some of the last in the city to be reconnected to the power grid. So, to Holy Family leaders, the Lighthouse feels like an extension of the work they’ve done in the city for nearly two centuries. 

“Our mission has always been to help the poor,” said Sister Alicia Costa, superior of Sisters of the Holy Family. After disasters or even during routine Entergy power outages, the new solar resilience hub will allow the congregation to keep feeding people in need and to operate its skilled nursing facility, Lafon Nursing Home.

“The lights go out here quite often,” added Sister Costa. “So to be able to have some light and keep those machines going – we have a number of people on oxygen – it really is important to us.”

Solar workforce training providing ‘high-wage jobs’

The Community Lighthouse at Sisters of the Holy Family will have 86 solar panels, producing 66,000 kWh of electricity per year. The work is being done through a workforce development partnership with Louisiana Green Corps and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to train local workers for high-wage jobs in the field of renewable energy. Photo by La’Shance Perry | The Lens

The Community Lighthouse project will begin to serve the New Orleans East community long before it opens for its first emergency. Together New Orleans forged a workforce development partnership with Louisiana Green Corps and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which will train local workers for high-wage jobs in the field of renewable energy. 

This partnership, too, is an extension of work already done, since Together Louisiana has long been focused on resolving the type of racial inequities seen within renewable energy. “Green industries such as solar offer high-wage occupations with lifetime career potential,” said Ryan Mattingly, executive director of Louisiana Green Corps. “However, Louisiana industries currently employ six times as many white people as people of color. This disparity contributes to our staggering racial-wealth gap in New Orleans.”

For youth and young adults living in the Greater New Orleans area, the Louisiana Green Corps provides skills training in “green jobs” – jobs that produce goods or services that benefit the environment. The program’s students receive paid training opportunities and support services and graduate debt-free with professional certifications.

Under the Inflation Reduction Act, Louisiana will receive $5 billion in federal funding to invest in large-scale clean power generation and storage projects. Tax credits will boost high-wage solar and other renewable energy jobs. “Our state is on the cusp of a green jobs revolution,” Mattingly said, noting that solar jobs, for example, are increasing 10% annually.

The partnership allows young people to show employers their work ethic instead of being judged solely by impersonal metrics like background checks, said Trayvon Stockman, a Louisiana Green Corps alumnus who is now a lead technician at another green business, Solar Alternatives.

The program is supportive in a way that stands out, its students say. “I love Green Corps – I believe that this organization will soon be all over Louisiana,” said Green Corps student Jayden Davis. “We have a young line of entrepreneurs that are ready to take the construction field by force.”

Sisters of the Holy Family’s second solar project aims to reduce neighbors’ Entergy bills

Louisiana Green Corps students and alumni on the roof of the Sisters of the Holy Family motherhouse, constructing New Orleans’ 12th Community Lighthouse. Photo by La’Shance Perry | The Lens

In September, Sister Alicia Costa met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, to discuss the Community Lighthouse project and a second community-solar project, a partnership between the Sisters of the Holy Family, Together New Orleans and City Council. 

Last year, the pope issued a statement on climate change, entitled an “apostolic exhortation to all people of good will on the climate crisis.” The urgency of the climate situation became even more clear during the pandemic, he wrote, as it “confirmed that what happens in one part of the world has repercussions on the entire planet. This allows me to reiterate two convictions that I repeat over and over again: ‘Everything is connected’ and ‘No one is saved alone.’”

In accordance with that philosophy, the Sisters of the Holy Family has moved forward with its second project, which involves the installation of solar panels on a 22-acre span of land on Dwyer Road that is also owned by the religious order. This new grouping of panels are part of a community solar project, to provide affordable solar energy to the community that lives nearby. 

The community solar project would provide subscriptions for 350 neighbors, reducing their Entergy bills by at least 25%, according to estimates from Broderick Bagert, an organizer with Together Louisiana who joined the order’s leaders in their meeting with Pope Francis last fall.

Project organizers are now in the midst of surveying the land, to ensure that the solar panels, once installed, will be able to connect to the larger power grid, Sister Costa said.

But first, the 22-acre community solar project had to be rubber-stamped by the City Council, Sister Costa said, recalling her trip to the council to request that approval. 

She walked up to Moreno, a longtime community-solar proponent, to see if the application was going to pass. 

Moreno said that, yes, they had the votes to approve. “How can we tell the pope no?” Moreno said.