Image by ulleo from Pixabay

Ida was the last example of a total blackout for the city other than for those with generators and solar. Even in these cases, some selectivity was needed to determine what to power. What if there were solar “lighthouses” throughout the city that neighbors could connect to?

When Hurricane Ida knocked out all eight of the transmission lines that bring power to New Orleans, it highlighted a vulnerability in the way the state keeps the lights on. The entire city went dark. But what if the lights could stay on – at least in some places – even if the transmission towers that take electricity from the power plants and transport it to where people live failed again? What if the power was being generated in those neighborhoods? That question, of whether Louisiana can embrace “distributed” energy, has taken on new life after Ida left millions in the dark earlier this year. The advocacy group Together New Orleans, in a series of community gatherings, sketched out a push for 85 to 100 “community lighthouses” around the city, where churches or other community centers would be equipped with solar panels and back-up batteries that could keep some power flowing even if a storm knocked out the broader grid.
Image by MOHANN from Pixabay

This is Portland Head Lighthouse. It sends a beam out 20 miles to identify the harbor and alert mariners to these rocks. I was stationed in Portland twice on Coast Guard cutters and this was our homecoming. A solar “lighthouse” works on the same premise. A beam is sent out to alert others of available power.

Together New Orleans is not alone in wanting to set up micro-grids.

The Alliance for Affordable Energy also sees such “microgrids” as a way to make southeast Louisiana more resilient in the face of storms, which are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change. And the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association is asking the Louisiana Public Service Commission to push for community solar. The effort would require rethinking how Louisiana’s electric grid works, something advocates say is overdue. “We need more reliability, we need more resilience to the grid, and we need more assets in the grid,” said Jon Wellinghoff, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees utilities at the federal level. He now works for the electricity market startup Voltus, Inc. “These things go against the old traditional historical utility business model,” he said. “That business model, as we all know, is not working for us anymore.”

Not working for us? Right. Changes needed? Right again. Even the Governor recognizes this.

Microgrids are also part of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Climate Initiatives Task Force, which aims to get Louisiana to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The task force noted there is money in the infrastructure bill to help implement microgrids and recommended immediately deploying microgrids and dispatchable batteries through pilot projects. But there are limits to how much solar can help in Louisiana’s fight to make its electric grid more resilient, experts say. For one, they are expensive. To create a microgrid that can operate when the rest of the grid is knocked offline — even a basic one, with a few solar panels on a roof — expensive batteries are needed. The upfront cost is too high for many homeowners across south Louisiana and renters usually don’t have the option to install them.

They are expensive but with subsidies and grants they are a possibility for both businesses and homeowners. The price is dropping. However we do not have a solar history.

Louisiana ranks 49th among the 50 states for renewable energy consumption as a share of the state’s total, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Louisiana relies heavily on natural gas to fuel its power plants. Entergy Louisiana also believes microgrids are key to building a more resilient grid. However, the company is focused on natural gas-powered microgrids, not renewables. Terrence Chambers, director of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Center, said solar investments are part of a broader array of projects that need to be pursued “if we’re serious about improving the reliability and resiliency” of the grid. Utility-scale solar has gotten cheap enough that it’s cost-competitive with certain natural gas plants in terms of power generation, Chambers said. But there are other costs that come into play when looking at microgrids. Solar, unlike fossil fuels, requires batteries to store power, because the sun doesn’t shine all the time. And batteries are still costly, though they are becoming cheaper and more reliable. Plus, solar systems tend to “survive storms very well,” he said. Along with batteries, solar systems that can operate independently of the grid need a special power inverter, Chambers said, driving costs up further.

Batteries can cost just as much as the solar panels and I am not sure what an inverter would cost but would be necessary to share the power. The cost is still high now for the average homeowner.

For instance, a Lazard analysis this year showed the low-end costs of building a utility-scale solar system, at around $28 per megawatt-hour, were cheaper than building a gas combined cycle plant. But community solar and residential rooftop solar are both generally more expensive, at $59 and $147 per megawatt hour, respectively. When factoring in battery storage, solar costs rise even further.  The average monthly bill for all of Louisiana was about $116 last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That translates to approximately $97 per megawatt hour, which includes the generation costs as well as all the other costs involved in getting power to a customer. “I think microgrids can be one piece of a larger solution,” Chambers said. “They’re not the one solution. There’s a lot of other things that could be done. And I think solar can play a part.”

There is no longer one solution. Entergy is seeing that in the solar and wind power they are adding to their sources of power. But it can be a major one.

Christopher Burgess, who works on renewable energy projects in the Caribbean for the Rocky Mountain Institute, said places like Louisiana can use microgrids to ensure critical assets like pumping stations, hospitals and the like keep power when the rest of the grid fails. Because the current electric grid in Louisiana is centralized around gas-fired power plants, power must be transported longer distances through transmission and distribution lines that are vulnerable to hurricane winds. Entergy Louisiana President and CEO Phillip May has said solar “has its place,” but pointed to its high costs, and said ratepayers in Louisiana can’t afford higher bills. He also pointed out that solar microgrids would have to be built to withstand higher winds in the face of increasingly strong hurricanes.

Entergy costs in the middle of the solar costs per kilo watt and they also have to prepare for stronger storms so what May said cuts both ways.

Entergy recently asked the state Public Service Commission for permission to install natural gas generators at several commercial and industrial sites. Spokesperson David Freese said these power sources would let those businesses “continue providing goods and services to the community while power is being restored elsewhere” during and after a hurricane. Freese said Entergy will continue to evaluate microgrid opportunities, including solar-powered systems. But he stressed that the technology is still expensive when all of the costs are factored in. “Since solar technology only produces energy during daylight hours, some form of energy storage (e.g., batteries) would need to be coupled with solar for a resiliency application,” he said. That, he added, “would provide further challenges” to pursuing solar microgrids.

These are the options that have been recommended. The Governors Climate Task Force needs to refine theirs and our submission helps in that regard.

Wellinghoff, of Voltus, agreed that if such systems were purchased through the traditional rate base model, it could be too costly for ratepayers. Instead, Wellinghoff said third-party companies should be allowed to make such investments and sell the power into the grid. Entergy and other utilities would be required to buy it through MISO, the grid operator that oversees the buying and selling of power. That has been the subject of a months-long fight between organizations like Voltus, which aggregates small-scale distributed energy and sells it, and state regulators and utilities like Entergy and the PSC over federal rules about what type of access “aggregators” of distributed energy systems have to the grid. Stephen Wright, head of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association, has pushed for Louisiana regulators to embrace solar. The group said the PSC should lift caps that make it harder for big electricity users to build solar systems and open probes addressing community solar and net metering, which credits solar panel owners for power they put into the grid. Wright said battery technology is improving so much that it’s financially viable to build solar systems that can operate independently of the grid. He said he will be pushing the Legislature to pass incentives for residential and utility-scale batteries. “If we can make those more affordable for folks, that’s really key,” Wright said. “Especially when you have a gas crunch, your battery can continue to recharge itself.”

Ida caused damage far beyond what power we lost and all this needs to be included in what decisions are made to make is more sustainable.

Louisiana faced a gasoline shortage after Ida, a result of refineries going offline, gas stations being knocked out and a huge number of people turning to gas-fired portable generators to power their air conditioners and refrigerators. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry spent millions of dollars delivering diesel trucks to keep hospitals, police and fire departments and others running on generator power. After Ida, the St. Peter Apartments in New Orleans lost power like everyone else. But after about a day, the apartments lit back up, thanks to a solar system that helped make the complex Louisiana’s first net-zero apartment building, according to its developer, SBP. A nonprofit, SBP, originally named the St. Bernard Project, sprung up out of Hurricane Katrina’s troubled recovery. Zack Rosenburg, co-founder and CEO of SBP, said the idea was to eliminate the “massive stressors” faced by people, especially those with fewer resources, during disasters. The organization partnered with Entergy, which donated $1.1 million, to install a solar system and make the apartments energy-efficient. After Ida, the apartments were able to get eight hours of electricity a day. SBP financed the project with a grant and low-income tax credits, Rosenburg said. But he believes the model could be used more broadly in New Orleans. A private developer could take the savings that customers get on their electric bills to help finance the costs of the system, and take advantage of tax credits for solar, he said. “I think the economic model is working for developers,” Rosenburg said. “Our view is there’s never change unless there’s pain or deep opportunity. We’re trying to show there’s deep opportunity.”

I think we can say we are well on the way to no longer be an “oil” state but rather and “energy” one. But it will take time, money and a change in thinking all which are available.

Can electric “lighthouses” work? We should try to see.