By Logan Atkinson Burke, Alliance for Affordable Energy, and Marriele Mango, Clean Energy Group
The crisis that unfolded in Louisiana after Hurricane Ida was tragic and all too familiar. Like Hurricane Katrina and numerous storms before it, Hurricane Ida demolished Louisiana’s outdated, fossil-fuel-dependent energy system. Outages were widespread and lasting. Over 1 million customers in Louisiana, including the entire City of New Orleans and residents along the rivers and bayous, immediately lost power. Three weeks later, 38,000 remained without power.
This total collapse of the grid is another painful example of how centralized power systems fail the people they’re meant to serve. It’s time for Louisiana leadership to prioritize resilient solutions – solar photovoltaics paired with battery storage (solar+storage) paired with energy efficient housing – over continued fossil-fuel investment. Disaster recovery funding can be used to spur resilient power development and create pathways for development in low-income communities and communities of color.
After each disaster, major grid improvements are promised. Yet, despite the efforts of local advocates, there has been minimal investment in distributed resilient power systems as a tool to better prepare for future disasters. Instead, state and local government, as well as the electric utility, Entergy, continue to fight tooth and nail for more fossil-fuel-powered energy infrastructure. The most recent of these investments, an Entergy-owned 128-megawatt gas peaker power plant was specifically promised to provide power to New Orleans when the grid is down or strained. In the hours and days following Hurricane Ida, the plant never went online.
Nonperformance of the gas plant is a bleak conclusion to a years-long battle. When the plant was proposed in 2016, a coalition led by the Alliance for Affordable Energy, Louisiana’s only dedicated watchdog working to protect consumer rights at the Louisiana Public Service Commission and New Orleans City Council, and other local advocates, including the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, 350 New Orleans, VAYLA, and local Sierra Club chapter, formed an opposition campaign. Their primary concerns were 1) the plant was sited (and, ultimately, built) in a frontline environmental justice community and 2) Entergy made no effort to seriously consider alternatives, including transmission upgrades, renewables, batteries, or efficiency.
With the support of Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit advocacy organization working to advance an equitable energy transition, the coalition commissioned an assessment comparing the proposed gas plant to battery resources. The results of that analysis were substantial; battery storage would cost significantly less than the gas plant over time while producing no emissions.
Ultimately, the economic, environmental, and health benefits of distributed energy weren’t enough to sway the New Orleans City Council. The vote was in favor to move forward with the gas plant. Now, two years later, it has already cost ratepayers more than $30 million and failed to perform when most needed.
(Not) Learning from Past Mistakes
Despite the failure of their gas peaker plant, Entergy is more committed than ever to build fossil-fuel powered energy infrastructure. The utility recently submitted a proposal to the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) to build a 120-MW gas peaker plant consisting of smaller distributed behind-the-meter systems – basically gas generators dispersed throughout Louisiana to be used by Entergy during times of high demand. Entergy’s proposal states that each generator will be 50 MW or smaller – thereby ensuring that their proposal doesn’t trigger a review of alternative technologies. This project would further solidify Entergy’s commitment to natural gas investment in the future and ensures that the communities it serves remain unable to access clean, resilient, and reliable power technologies.
It’s time to look to alternatives. Distributed solar+storage systems would avoid installing dozens of polluting natural gas generators. Resilient power can also be used as an alternative to large, polluting plants (like the one that recently failed post Ida), which, if history tells us anything, would most likely be sited in an environmental justice community of color already disproportionately suffering from the environmental and health impacts of polluting energy infrastructure.
Look to Resilient Power Solutions
Resilient solar+storage systems provide renewable and reliable backup power, power on automatically in the event of an outage, and emit zero harmful pollutants. Distributed energy resources can make the grid more resilient and ensure vulnerable populations and critical community facilities have access backup power in the event of an outage. During regular grid operations, solar+storage can provide valuable grid services, such as offsetting times of peak demand, and generate revenue and utility savings for facility owners.
Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with electricity-dependent medical equipment, can rely on solar+storage systems installed in a community space of their housing complex or in their own home to provide emergency backup power through an outage or until emergency support can safely arrive. Critical facilities, such as a local health centers and community centers, can stay open and operational after a disaster with resilient power to provide refrigeration for food, heating and cooling for shelter, and electricity for charging stations as well as medical care equipment.
The Better Public Health Option
In the wake of Hurricane Ida, critical facilities serving low-income communities would have benefitted from distributed solar+storage. Public health has suffered as few local critical facilities are equipped to operate through an outage. The most vulnerable are instead forced to find basic necessities and medical support outside of their own community.
Even the facilities open and operational were strained following the storm; without local health centers open, hospitals already close to maximum capacity due to COVID were inundated with people sick or injured due to Ida. Many of those in search of critical care had health emergencies due to extreme heat. Without power, people lost access to air conditioning as temperatures reached over 100 degrees. With no backup power, vulnerable populations, including the elderly and disabled, were trapped in sweltering apartments without elevator access for evacuation. At least 10 deaths in New Orleans during the outages can be attributed to heat; all the victims were over the age of 60.
Dozens were rushed to the hospital, and six people died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to improperly used diesel generators. Critical facilities also suffered as fossil-fuel powered generators failed; one hospital had to conduct an emergency patient transfer when two of the hospital’s five generators failed.
The few facilities equipped with solar+storage fared better. Residents at St. Peters Apartments, a mixed-income apartment building in New Orleans, were able to remain in their apartments with their lights on, refrigerator powered, and cooktop available. Residents could even run air conditioners certain times of the day, helping to avoid heat-related health emergencies.
Opportunities Moving Forward
There is precedent for federal and state funding of significant resilient power development post-disaster. In 2018, the Stafford Act was amended to allow for repairs to “critical services” be built “to industry standards without regard to pre-disaster construction of the facility or system.” This change allowed Puerto Rico to utilize Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding after Hurricane Maria to fund solar+storage development as part of the recovery process.
Right now, FEMA is paying for some reimbursements for fossil-fueled generators. Let’s redirect that effort to resources that don’t continue to exacerbate the problem. Similar to what was authorized in Puerto Rico, CDBG funds for Louisiana can be used to support both individual customer-sited and microgrid solar+storage systems, even where those energy systems were not in place before the disaster.
Currently, there is no dedicated solar and storage incentive to promote adoption of resilient, customer-based systems in the gulf south. Federal recovery funds could be used to spur solar+storage development by dedicating a billion dollars – $200 million a year for five years— to support an incentive that would buy-down the cost of solar and battery storage systems. Higher incentive levels should be established for vulnerable single-family residences, affordable and supportive housing, and critical facilities.
Instead of learning from past mistakes, Entergy continues to pursue the same outdated, polluting solutions. Now is the time to make meaningful resilient power investment. As Louisiana works to “build back better”, disaster recovery funding should be used to support widescale installation of solar and battery storage. New Orleans and the Louisiana PSC should commit to renewable energy resources and look to community organizations to locate distributed power. In doing so, a resilient power precedent can be established, and vulnerable communities better served when disaster strikes.
Logan Atkinson Burke is the Executive Director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy in Louisiana. Since joining the organization in 2013, Logan has focused her efforts on reducing energy burdens and clean energy issues, especially advocating for policies that support a just transition away from fossil fuels. She has led several collaborative efforts supporting affordable housing, health, good governance, climate resilience, and the intersection of Louisiana’s power sector. Logan received a Bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and now lives in New Orleans.
Marriele Mango is a project director for Clean Energy Group. In that role, Marriele assists the vice president to manage technical assistance and capacity building programs to support the development of solar plus battery storage projects to benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. She is a policy professional with 7+ years’ experience in leading renewable energy, energy efficiency, and resilience programs. Marriele’s work with CEG is focused on projects that prioritize environmental justice and financial feasibility.