Solar power offers $6 billion opportunity for Louisiana, researchers say

Experts worry state climate task force is looking in wrong direction

By: - August 17, 2021 7:00 am
Louisiana governor discusses solar and wind at U.N. climate conference

Rows of solar modules generate electricity at UL-Lafayette’s Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing (PART) Lab — Aug. 9, 2021. (Wes Muller/La. Illuminator)

Louisiana researchers say the focus on carbon capture technologies by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Climate Initiatives Task Force could lead to missed opportunities for a faster, cheaper and easier impact on Louisiana’s carbon emissions problem. There are more than $6 billion in investments waiting to come to Louisiana right now that could supply a significant share of the state’s electricity demand with clean renewable energy. 

In July,  the LSU Center for Energy Studies reported that heavy industry is responsible for 61% of Louisiana’s total emissions, and most of that comes from just 20 petrochemical facilities. Those are owned by familiar companies: ExxonMobil, Shell, Marathon Petroleum, Citgo, Dow Chemical, Valero and Phillips 66.

In light of that data, some task force members said the only way to meet the governor’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is to reduce the state’s industrial footprint. In other words, those 20 facilities either need to reduce their operations or find much cleaner ways of operating.

Professor David Dismukes, the LSU Center for Energy’s executive director, said he knows of no ways to meet the zero emissions goal without reducing the state’s industrial carbon footprint.

But Louisiana politicians have long resisted tightening regulations on the petrochemical industry. The sector is backed by some of the state’s most powerful lobby groups, and the top 20 facilities listed in the LSU report collectively employ thousands of workers. 

The governor’s climate task force includes members from the petrochemical industry and is focusing on using carbon capture and sequestration to reduce emissions. But that technology has had mixed results, as seen with Mississippi’s Kemper power plant — a project that was expected but ultimately failed to set an example for “clean coal” carbon capture. The New York Times revealed problems with the facility were concealed from regulators for years, prompting a Justice Department investigation into the project’s use of taxpayer-funded grants. 

Dismukes said carbon capture methods might sequester an immediate 20 to 30 million tons — just 15% of the state’s total emissions, though this could improve over time as the technology develops. 

Still, carbon capture technologies are expensive and industrial companies have little incentive to adopt them without new regulation, he said. Dismukes said he would support carbon capture through a “cap-and-trade” program that requires industrial facilities to reduce emissions by a certain level and offers tradable credits for over-complying with that standard regardless of what technology they use.

Other researchers, however, say solar and wind power would have a more immediate impact on carbon emissions, create new jobs and cost nothing to taxpayers. 

Professor Terrence Chambers, director of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Energy Center and a member of the task force, said there is roughly $6 billion in investments waiting to come to Louisiana that could provide power for more than 1 million homes with solar energy or roughly one-quarter of the state’s net electricity demand. 

Simon Mahan, director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, which advocates for renewables like solar and wind, said the $6 billion amount is actually on the conservative end. The figure represents only the construction cost and doesn’t include additional investments such as the creation of permanent jobs for Louisiana residents and a new source of long-term property tax and sales tax revenue for the state, he said.

Rows of solar panels occupy located at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing (PART) Lab, Aug. 9, 2021. (Wes Muller/La. Illuminator)

Louisiana will eventually convert to solar and wind and has already begun importing wind electricity from other states, Chambers said. 

Last year, the Louisiana Public Service Commission approved a Southwestern Electric Power Co. (Swepco) utility proposal to import up to 464 megawatts — enough to power roughly 135,000 homes — from a $2 billion wind farm being built in Oklahoma. And, Mahan said, an even bigger deal for imported wind power is currently pending commission approval. 

“Wind and solar prices have come down so drastically that it’s significantly less expensive to shut down the polluting power plants and replace them with renewable resources,” Mahan said. “And I don’t say that just academically or hypothetically. It’s because that’s exactly what Swepco is doing. And if you look at the regulatory filings, they continually say, ‘This is the cheapest thing for us to do for our customers.’”

Renewable energies alone cannot solve Louisiana’s greenhouse gas problem, but Chambers and Mahan said renewables would make an immediate impact on carbon emissions at a level no other solution currently available can match.

If renewables replaced Louisiana’s fossil fuel power plants, it would only reduce emissions by about 35 million tons or 17%, Dismukes, the LSU professor, said. Although that’s about 10 million more tons than what carbon capture would do, Desmukes said carbon capture’s impact is expected to improve over time. “There is no silver bullet,” he said.

“The idea that it would somehow be better and cheaper to invest in these carbon capture technologies — the reality is those have to compete against these other better technologies, and it’s just an awful lot easier, quicker, cheaper and more reliable to just build the zero-emission resources to begin with,” Mahan said. 

Chambers said renewables could eventually offset a larger share of the state’s emissions by electrifying some industrial operations that currently use carbon fuels to manufacture chemicals and petroleum products.

“Even though the electric power industry is not the largest source of carbon emissions for the state, it’s one that we know how to resolve, and because of that, we have the technology; it’s readily available, and it’s low-cost,” Mahan said. “That is a sector we can move on very quickly. And so if we want to achieve the governor’s climate goals, that is going to be one of the easiest sectors for us to clean up as fast as we can because that buys us time to work on the other industries and work on the other sectors.”

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

MORE FROM AUTHOR