Nuns trying to build New Orleans solar garden want fair price for power

Regulations have stymied city’s Community Solar Program

By: - April 1, 2023 5:00 am
Catholic nun speaking into microphone and holding up plans of solar plant

Sister Alicia Costa, a Catholic nun with the Sisters of the Holy Family, testifies before a New Orleans City Council committee on the Community Solar Program on March 28, 2023. (New Orleans City Council screenshot)

An order of nuns wants to build a community solar plant in New Orleans, but pesky city regulations are getting in the way of helping low-income families save money on their power bills.

The Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic order established by free women of color in 1842 in defiance of then-racist Louisiana laws, announced their plans Tuesday for a solar hub at a New Orleans City Council committee meeting. 

Sister Alicia Christina Costa told council members her convent intends to build a neighborhood solar garden on a 22-acre tract of land they own in New Orleans East as part of the city’s Community Solar Program.

In 2019, the city council established the program to make the electricity savings from solar energy accessible to people who can’t purchase their own solar panels either because they rent, can’t afford them or for any other reason. 

Under the program, instead of purchasing solar panels privately, one can purchase a subscription to a community solar development anywhere in the city. Subscribers receive bill credits for the energy the solar gardens produce and save money on their electricity. 

Some have referred to such developments as “solar gardens” because they are typically smaller than utility-scale solar farms but bigger than rooftop solar installations. Together New Orleans, a coalition of civic and church groups, has helped spearhead the city’s Community Solar Program as a companion to its Community Lighthouse Project, which primarily provides places of shelter and backup power during disasters. 

The Sisters of the Holy Family see the project as a unique way to serve the poor in their community. 

“We, the sisters, cannot work as we used to because of our aging membership, but we still minister in other ways to support our mission to the poor,” Sister Alicia said.

It has been four years since New Orleans launched the Community Solar Program, and no solar gardens have been developed. The problem, according to the nuns and other interested parties, stems from poorly devised regulations that have hampered investment. 

“The crux of the problem is the tariff rate,” Together New Orleans member Alaina DiLaura said in a phone interview. “An investor would never recoup their investment with the way the rules are currently set up.” 

Under regulations the city council adopted in 2019, subscribers would receive bill credits that are not worth the full value of the electricity generated by the solar gardens. 

Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, said the current tariff rate is not a fair price. It essentially offers the subscriber a wholesale value for the energy when it should be offering full retail value at the same amount homeowners with rooftop solar panels receive, she said. 

“As a result, it just simply doesn’t pencil in the same way as rooftop solar does,” Burke said.

Another regulation that has proven problematic is one that limits the generation capacity of the solar gardens to 2 megawatts — significantly smaller than the 5-megawatt cap common among community solar programs across the nation. 

“By shifting from 2 megawatts to 5, the economies of scale simply make it more cost effective,” Burke said.

In response to requests to amend the rules, the city council opened a new public comment period for the proposed changes. 

“The initial resolution for the community solar project did not produce one — not one — such project as intended,” Sister Alicia said. “Thus, maybe some rules need to change to make it feasible for investors to embark upon such projects.”


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Wesley Muller
Wesley 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.