Solar gardens encouraged to grow in New Orleans

Rule changes pave way for nuns to build community solar project

By: - October 30, 2023 6:37 pm
Row of solar panels

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

New Orleans city officials amended a set of regulations Monday that should clear the way for an order of Catholic nuns and other organizations to build solar energy projects to assist low-income residents.

Nearly 150 residents organized through the civic-and-church umbrella group Together New Orleans gathered at City Hall in support of the changes to the city’s Community Solar Program. The New Orleans City Council’s Climate Change and Sustainability Committee voted unanimously to adopt reforms that will, among other things, increase the value of bill credits for the generation of solar power under the program. 

The city council established the Community Solar Program in 2019 to make the electricity savings from solar energy and the reliability of microgrids accessible to people who can’t purchase their own solar panels because they aren’t affordable or because they rent their home. 

Under the program, instead of purchasing solar panels, a resident can subscribe to a community solar development anywhere in the city. The subscribers then receive credits on their electric bill for the energy the solar gardens produce. 

Such microgrid developments are called solar gardens because they are typically smaller than utility-scale solar farms but bigger than rooftop solar installations. Together New Orleans 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, a Catholic order free women of color established in 1842 in defiance of racist Louisiana laws, saw the Community Solar Program as a unique way to serve the poor in their community and made plans to build a neighborhood solar garden on a 22-acre tract of land they own in New Orleans East.

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

“We want to help reduce energy costs for those who struggle … and we want to do so by using carbon-free energy,” Sister Alicia Christina Costa said to the committee. 

However, the nuns and other interested investors ran into roadblocks with some poorly devised regulations that made the investments too risky. One of the main issues was a tariff rate that determined the value of the bill credits subscribers would receive for the amount of electricity the solar gardens generate. 

The initial rules offered subscribers a wholesale tariff rate while homeowners with rooftop solar panels were receiving a retail price tariff rate.

Another problem limited the generation capacity of solar gardens to 2 megawatts, significantly smaller than the 5-megawatt cap common among community solar programs across the nation. 

The new rules will shift New Orleans’ tariff rate from wholesale to retail and increase its generation cap to 5 megawatts. 

Costa and several other advocates applauded the changes. 

“With today’s proposal immediately we’ll start to work and become a reality,” Costa said.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots to 1997 when, at age 13, he built a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. Since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune and worked on staff at WAFB/CBS, the Sun Herald and the Enterprise-Journal, winning awards from the SPJ, Associated Press, Mississippi Press Association and McClatchy. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Muller is a New Orleans native, Jesuit High School alumnus, University of New Orleans alumnus and a U.S. Army veteran and former paratrooper. He lives in Southeast Louisiana with his two sons and wife.

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