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New Orleans — and Louisiana — need to scale up renewables. Could rooftop solar be the answer?

Solar panels Lower Ninth Ward
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
Rev. Charles Duplessis walks by his solar panel-topped house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. He owns his panels but has yet to buy batteries due to the price.

For years, Troy LaRose wanted to add solar panels to his house in Lakeview. But after the state’s tax credits expired in 2015, he couldn’t afford to spend thousands and buy them outright.

Instead, the New Orleans native turned to an option that felt more accessible: leasing.

For $20 each month, LaRose finally saw 24 shiny, black boxes anchored to his roof in September by solar company PosiGen, each pulling in the power of the sun.

In turn, he saves an average of $75 per month on his energy bills. Though, for him, it’s about more than money.

“The cost is definitely a benefit, but in my mind, it's just the right thing to do,” said Larose. “Anytime these things come up, it always piques my interest because if we all make little changes, you could definitely make some big impacts later.”

Solar Panels Lakeview Troy Larose
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
Lakeview resident and New Orleans native Troy Larose walks in his backyard as his 24-panel rooftop collects the sun's rays on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. His rented panels sit on the west and south-facing sides of his roof.

Because of its incentives, New Orleans is the only place in Louisiana that’s maintained an industry for residential solar, and advocates argue it will play a critical role in the transition away from burning fossil fuels. Combined with storage, those rooftop panels could also enhance the region’s resilience against the extreme weather and intense storms propelled by a warming planet.

But for rooftop solar to have any meaningful impact, it will likely require significantly more investment, a slew of new programs and mass participation.

So far, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has taken small steps, like launching a campaign promoting local solar companies, including PosiGen. Known as Solar for All, the two-year-old campaign brings awareness to leasing and financing options that can make the cost of solar more manageable and offers free home assessments.

Larose is one of 1,400 New Orleans residents who has signed a contract with PosiGen since the campaign launched in early 2020. On average, its customers pay $75 a month to rent their panels across 20 years.

At the end of 2021, about 8,900 Entergy New Orleans customers had solar installed, including residential and larger commercial projects. Altogether, they can produce up to 50 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 8,200 houses, according to company spokesperson Lee Sabatini.

Overcoming barriers

Despite the name, “Solar for All,” the cost of solar panels isn’t manageable for everyone. For some in New Orleans — and even more statewide — adding solar includes upfront costs and maintenance that make it out of reach, especially as the state has scaled back incentives.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Rev. Charles Duplessis and his wife cut their Entergy bill by up to a third after their 16-panel system was installed for free in 2009. Duplessis wanted panels when rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, but it would’ve been harder if the cost hadn’t been covered by a solar company working on other houses nearby.

He was part of a boom that saw the Lower Ninth Ward hold the most houses with solar panels in the city in 2013, but that slowed after the state rolled back incentives.

“We made recommendations that people, if they could afford them, get them,” Duplessis said. “The tax credit was helping a lot of people out.”

Lower Ninth Ward solar panels
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
Rev. Charles Duplessis poses in front of his solar roof on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

The reverend still hasn’t added batteries that would allow his home to run off the panels – the $10,000 price tag is too steep without help.

Leasing panels to residents have helped make solar more attainable, but to scale up, there need to be more tools available.

State and local leaders know this. That’s why the state’s first-ever Climate Plan — which hinges on Louisiana adopting its own clean and renewable energy standard — recommended the return of tax incentives and an electric billing tool known as “net-metering.”

That allows those with solar roofs to sell the electricity produced back into the grid at the same rate the utility company sells energy to its customers. It’s a one-for-one credit that still exists in New Orleans but was scaled back in the rest of the state in 2019 to credit only a third of what they pay.

Energy and housing advocates say tax credits and net-metering, while important, are only part of the puzzle. State and local governments, even utilities themselves, need to supplement these with grant programs to lower costs – like those seen in other states. In North Carolina, utility company Duke Energy gives out its own rebates to residents who install solar.

Solar in New Orleans-4.jpg
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
Rooftop solar panels sit on top of a house on Tennessee Street in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

And Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance Executive Director Andreanecia Morris noted some grants would need to go further to create equity. Rebate programs still require people to have the money upfront before being reimbursed.

A program that fronts the cost for lower-income residents and allows them to pay it back over time, similar to PosiGen’s leasing model, would fill the gap created by rebates or tax credits, and give residents the choice to own their panels and batteries instead of lease.

“We need to be investing in our communities,” Morris said. “We need to be improving our housing stock, and it needs to be comprehensive.”

Even without these incentives in place, other solar programs are still actively growing in New Orleans, and city officials and advocates like Morris have their sights set on how more rooftop and community solar could change its energy landscape.

The future of rooftop solar

Rooftop solar projects could never supply all the city — or state’s — energy needs, but Alliance for Affordable Energy Executive Director Logan Burke said that some reports estimate that distributed energy resources, which includes rooftop solar systems, could supply up to a quarter of renewable energy needs.

Last year, New Orleans City Council passed a Renewable and Clean Energy Standard, ordering Entergy New Orleans to become carbon neutral by 2040. Currently, about half of its energy comes from carbon-free sources.

Entergy New Orleans has focused on adding renewable energy through utility-scale solar farms, arguing they’re the most cost-effective path to generating more solar power.

“We believe that residential and commercial rooftop solar and utility-scale solar projects will all play their own unique roles in supporting the grid,” Sabatini said, noting the company has piloted a small residential solar program.

Distributed energy resources generate electricity on a smaller scale than a solar farm or nuclear plant but still feed into the electric grid, decentralizing where power comes from.

This is in line with the Cantrell administration’s goals. Mayor’s Office of Utilities Director Jonathan Rhodes described a future where tens of thousands of solar roofs act as miniature power plants. That includes smaller residential systems and larger ones placed on warehouses, schools or churches.

“Other cities are piloting things like this where a virtual power plant is kind of a way to distribute our energy resources instead of having one or two big power plants,” he said.

Aside from promoting private companies, the City Council has created a community solar program, where residents could “subscribe” to a larger rooftop project built by a developer, Rhodes said. Those residents, who likely can’t install their own solar, would receive a credit on their monthly bill based on the amount of electricity produced.

But so far, no projects have come online.

The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance’s latest plan for addressing the affordable housing crisis includes weatherizing and installing solar and storage systems on more than 50,000 homes — a task they estimate would cost nearly $2 billion but would help the thousands of homeowners and renters spending a quarter of their income on electricity.

Weatherizing would involve sealing up New Orleans’ often drafty houses, making them energy efficient. Then rooftop solar and storage would further lower energy costs and even allow people to retain some power during outages.

And the need is urgent, said Morris.

“If we don't do this now, in 10 years, we will find ourselves irrevocably on a path where we won't survive. The time is now,” she said. “It's going to take years to fully deploy, but this is not something that needs to wait.”