Danae Columbus: Are home generators or solar panels a new necessity in New Orleans?

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Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

I used to think that purchasing a “whole house” generator or putting a dozen or more solar panels on my roof was an unnecessary expense. Now I am reconsidering those options after surviving a recent brownout on one of those 100 degree days – and realizing the electricity is going out in New Orleans neighborhoods far too often.

Integral to my rethinking process is the belief that Entergy currently lacks the capacity and updated infrastructure to generate and transmit the power needed to consistently keep every New Orleans homes and businesses comfortable on the hottest and coldest days of the year. Some customers might say that Entergy should have better prioritized repairing infrastructure like poles, transformers and transmission lines immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Others might want Entergy to diversify their sources of power with an eye toward more renewable resources like solar or wind. Still others complain that the City Council approved a new gas plant in New Orleans East without hearing the voices of all interested parties – not just the ones being paid to speak.

Upgrading infrastructure and developing new sources of affordable, renewable power are necessary long-term solutions that Entergy should start working on now. As for the short-term, customers can purchase generators, install solar panels or accept that the proposed gas plant is the best way to eliminate power outages that are likely to become even more frequent.

Many residential and commercial property owners praise gas generators as a worthwhile expenditure, especially in New Orleans’ hurricane-prone climate. As the number of service providers increased, equipment costs have become more competitive. Though solar power is popular among those interested in renewable energy, the jury is still out on their practicality in many of New Orleans’ leafy neighborhoods. Solar panels work best in flat, dry climates or new subdivisions where the tree canopy is less restrictive. Some parishes even require that transmission lines and poles be located a certain distance from trees. Cloudy or rainy days severely limit the amount of electricity that can be generated. Also, New Orleans has a high percentage of renters who legally cannot acquire solar panels and low income homeowners who can’t afford them.

For most homes, solar panels – which can be purchased or leased – cost more than a whole-house gas generator. Although Entergy writes on their website that interest in solar energy is increasing, associated costs have gone up since tax credits are no longer available. For a roof to be “solar-viable,” it must be large enough to accommodate four contiguous solar panels. According to the Google app Project Sunroof, the majority of New Orleans buildings could be “solar viable.”

Though building owners who generate more electricity from their solar panels than they need can “sell” their extra power back to Entergy, many local solar panel owners never meet that threshold. According to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, Entergy Louisiana (which provides power outside Orleans Parish) limits how many customers they would buy electricity back from – one half of one percent of households served.

Solar is taking off in Arkansas, another state in which Entergy provides power. By the end of 2017, almost 1000 households or commercial users fed power back into the grid, a 50% increase since 2016. In partnership with NextEra Energy, Entergy broke ground in May on that state’s largest universal solar energy project on 475 acres expanse of flat, dry land in Stuttgart, Ark., the heart of duck country where rice, corn and soybeans abound. NextEra will build and operate the facility and sell the power back to Entergy which will in turn sell it to Arkansas customers. L’oreal Cosmetics also powers a factory in central Arkansas via solar panels.

After Katrina struck, the City of New Orleans cashed in stockpiled energy futures to fund repairs to the local power grid. Now we must purchase power at higher costs on the open market. In an effort to keep costs down, the City purchased a small portion of two nuclear plants, including one in Arkansas. Entergy closed their old gas plant — a cash cow which helped keep New Orleans bills under control during peak utilization months — before a replacement was approved. All these influences have lead to more frequent brownouts and higher utility bills this summer.

Entergy’s job is to provide the citizens of New Orleans with safe, affordable power. Although the City Council controls their profit level, Entergy also has an obligation to earn money for its investors. Entergy can best reach both goals by building the new gas plant. Gas is cheap, clean and reliable. It works best in our sub-tropical climate and our compact, tree-lined neighborhoods.

The nice Irish family who stayed in my Airbnb last weekend could not understand why the power went out Sunday. That just doesn’t happen back home, they said. It shouldn’t happen here either. Until New Orleans develops adequate sources of affordable power and the updated infrastructure to support transmission, brownouts will unfortunately continue. Slap a big fat fine on Entergy for hiring paid actors, revisit the gas plant ordinance, but let’s get on with securing the affordable electricity New Orleanians deserve.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the darling of Democratic socialists, will close out Netroots Nation 2018 next Saturday at the Morial Convention Center. Three thousand participants are expected to attend the event which is billed as the largest conference for progressives. A reduced registration fee is available for New Orleans residents.

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-elect Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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