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New federal program to help city officials fix New Orleans’ power grid

Eileen Fleming

Over the next year and half, the U.S. Department of Energy’s technical experts will work with New Orleans officials to craft a plan to modernize the area’s energy infrastructure under a new program.

That long-term strategy will help local officials move toward its goals of building a resilient electrical grid and decentralizing electricity generation with rooftop solar and storage and self-sustaining microgrids.

“We want to plan around the vulnerabilities in our grid, understanding where we have problems, and then finding the solutions that we can implement on individual, local and community-wide levels,” said Jonathan Rhodes, the Mayor’s Office of Utilities’ director.

The federal program — called the Communities Local Energy Action Program (LEAP) — doesn’t come with any money to put the plan into action. But federal and city officials said it will help the city compete for various pots of federal dollars, including the $1.3 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The issue of grid resilience in the face of climate change came into sharp focus after Hurricane Ida blasted through the region last August, plunging much of New Orleans into darkness for a week or more during a heatwave. Of the 29 deaths attributed to Ida in Louisiana, 13 were heat-related. Others died from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.

Rhodes likened the push to harden the city’s energy infrastructure post-Ida to the major investments made on storm surge protection around the Greater New Orleans area after the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.

“The levees held during Ida, but the power grid did not,” Rhodes said. “We know New Orleans is on the front lines of climate change. We also need to be on the forefront of climate action, and in our city, that means building a more renewable, resilient, sustainable power grid.”

Solar in New Orleans-4.jpg
Halle Parker
Rooftop solar panels sit on top of a house on Tennessee Street in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

Rhodes said distributed solar not only serves to provide more backup generation when Entergy New Orleans transmission lines fail, but bring down electricity costs in a city where many residents suffer a high energy burden from expensive monthly bills.

Only communities overburdened by energy costs were considered for LEAP. Department of Energy spokesperson Charisma Troiano said applicants had to demonstrate areas that spent 6% or more of gross household income on energy costs.

In New Orleans neighborhoods like Iberville and Central City, residents spend 13% to 20% of their income on their energy bills, respectively, according to DOE data.

Troiano said this high burden, in part, stems from the city’s history of depending on fossil energy.

“This dependence has contributed to a legacy of environmental degradation and economic under-development, which manifest as high rates of household energy burden, high exposure to environmental toxicity and risk of natural hazards,” she said.

Troiano noted those hazards could come in the form of tropical storms and hurricanes like Ida or extreme heat that can have severe impacts on the community.

The joint planning effort will center improvements on the most energy burdened and vulnerable neighborhoods, while attempting to tackle energy affordability and reliability at the same time. Rhodes said they’ll also look at workforce development needs and economic opportunities for green industries in the city.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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