Climate Activists Are Hauling Solar Tech to New Orleans to Help Restore Power

October 13, 2021
Climate Change
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Four days after Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane, much of New Orleans and its surrounding areas remain in the dark, both literally and metaphorically: Power outages persist and Entergy, the corporation responsible for fueling the region, has still not said clearly when power will be restored.

In this vacuum, a coalition of climate activists are maneuvering to temporarily bring approximately $1 million worth of solar equipment to the region to both immediately aid relief efforts and hopefully lay the groundwork for the kind of greener New Orleans Entergy has previously tried to stifle.

Josh Fox, the documentary filmmaker and environmental activist behind 2010’s Gasland, tells Rolling Stone that his non-profit, Solutions Grassroots, along with Empowered by Light and the Footprint Project, have acquired 12 10KW solar systems, donated by Tesla, and an array of other smaller solar systems (Fox has also contributed to Rolling Stone in the past.) Linking up with local organizations, from other climate groups like the Alliance for Affordable Energy to cultural institutions, the goal is to begin distributing this solar tech around New Orleans and other hard-hit areas as soon as Sunday or Monday.

“People are really struggling to get information and just stay safe in this heat. There are folks who are going to the hospital because of carbon monoxide poisoning from traditional generators,” Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, tells Rolling Stone. We’re trying to to figure out a way to support folks who are there because they couldn’t afford to get out, and those who are there to rebuild since we need to get power to drills, saws and those kinds of things.”

“Rather than parachuting in and doing this with FEMA and the Red Cross and all that garbage, we’re working directly with the local organizations that are the most keyed in to where need is and to what specific geography these solar systems can be deployed,” Fox adds. “And not only as a relief organization, but as a political statement.”

As Fox explains, back in 2018, the New Orleans City Council approved construction on a fossil fuel-powered plant in New Orleans East, a predominately poor black and Vietnamese area. The lead-up to that approval was filled with controversy: For instance, it was revealed that Entergy had paid people to advocate for the power plant at a 2017 city council meeting, while Entergy also threatened the City Council with litigation if it adopted a policy known as the “resilient renewable portfolio standard,” which would have led to things like the implementation of solar micro grids. While Entergy was fined $5 million for the astroturfing stunt, the renewable energy portfolio was dropped and the plant was built.

At the time, Entergy boasted that the New Orleans Power Station (NOPS) would be perfect for exactly the situation New Orleans now finds itself in: It was touted as a “blackstart” plant that could turn on from nothing and get power flowing through the city. But in the wake of Hurricane Ida, that has clearly not happened. Ida knocked out the company’s eight transmission lines into the city, but the NOPS needed a boost from a restored transmission line coming out of neighboring Slidell —  across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans — for the iota of power that has come back to start flowing.

In a post on its website Thursday, Entergy stated the NOPS is “working as designed.” The company added that while the NOPS “could have been used to power part of New Orleans in an ‘island’ mode,” and that Entergy was “fully prepared to deploy NOPS in this manner,” it said, “Having the tie to the rest of the power grid provides a more stable and resilient supply to customers and allows us to bring in power from other sources.”

“This is Hurricane Entergy,” Fox says. “We survived Hurricane Ida. Whatever happens in the next three or four weeks that goes wrong in New Orleans is Hurricane Entergy. This power system should not be broken. The power system needs to be resilient. And the power system in New Orleans should not be exacerbating the effects of climate change, which is a direct threat to New Orleans.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, a rep for Entergy said that the company’s “top priority right now following a Category 4 hurricane is on the safe and timely restoration of power to our customers and communities.” “Entergy has long believed climate change poses a significant risk to our region and our planet,” the company said. “We see environmental stewardship and adding cleaner energy generation not as a choice, but as a responsibility and an opportunity.”

With any luck, the solar equipment being brought to New Orleans will temporarily alleviate some of the suffering. Burke says the 10KW solar storage systems will help power places like churches, community centers and schools where people are gathering and distributing supplies. They’re also working to distribute smaller solar storage tech, similar to generators, that will help people charge phones in their homes, and maybe run refrigerators or fans (people will be able to keep these items for the next storm). There are also plans to get DC-connected ice chests to people, which can be useful for everything from food storage to refrigerating medications like insulin. And solar cell phone chargers, of course, are crucial for those doing all the logistical work.

“We’re not just focused on Orleans Parish,” Burke stresses. “This crisis goes beyond New Orleans, it goes beyond Entergy New Orleans — it is really a southeast Louisiana crisis. We’re also supporting folks in the coastal parishes — Plaquemines, Houma — and then up in the the river parishes up in St. John and St. James.”

While Fox notes that the 10KW systems from Tesla are being donated on a temporary basis, he hopes this project will lead to the construction of more permanent and reliable solar infrastructure as soon as possible. “New Orleans should be the greenest city in America,” he says. “It’s one of the worst places as far as climate impact, and it should be the greenest city in the United States… We want to put pressure on the mayor and put pressure on the Governor, put pressure on the city council to understand that Entergy’s monopoly must end and we need resilient solar electric micro grids in the city of New Orleans.”

“These storms are coming faster and stronger,” Burke adds. “We need to invest in transmission systems and in distributed resources to make sure that that people have what they need before, during and after these storms. Because the the old fashioned systems are just not what is helpful to people. Entergy has the system that they wanted to build and this is what we have.”

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