A grassroots coalition turns to solar and batteries to help New Orleans cope with disasters

Community and faith groups are raising $13.8 million to build clean-powered lighthouses” across Louisiana and boost post-hurricane grid resilience.

New Orleans from above
New Orleans (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Neil Bernard sees natural disasters as opportunities for us to live out our faith in a real way.” As pastor of the New Wine Christian Fellowship in LaPlace, Louisiana, he and the members of the fellowship have had many such opportunities.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated nearby New Orleans in August 2005, New Wine opened its doors to hundreds of displaced residents, and then to teams of volunteers from across the country who came to the area to assist with recovery and rebuilding. Later, when 2012’s Hurricane Isaac flooded thousands of homes and businesses in its home parish of St. John the Baptist, New Wine became a hub for providing food, clothing and other supplies. 

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Last year’s Hurricane Ida wreaked even greater havoc in LaPlace, with about two-thirds of the town’s structures damaged or destroyed. The need for recovery and rebuilding was even more severe, with one semitrailer full of construction materials and supplies arriving each day at New Wine’s ministry located in a converted shopping center. 

A group of volunteers stand in front a tent on a street with puddles and traffic cones
Members of the New Wine Christian Fellowship in LaPlace, Louisiana distributing supplies amid the widespread blackouts after Hurricane Ida in 2021. (New Wine Christian Fellowship)

But what made it worse is that this area was without power for about three weeks,” Bernard said in an interview last week. 

For ministries and organizations like ours on the ground, the first to respond, you need power to keep food cool, you need power to dispatch people correctly,” he said. It would have been a whole lot better to have power for people who were already frightened and lost. A lot of them have medical equipment. […] It really created a challenge for some of these families.”

That’s why Bernard and his congregants jumped at the chance to join the Community Lighthouse effort led by Together New Orleans, a coalition of faith and community groups. The goal of the $13.8 million project is to secure rooftop solar and backup batteries for faith and community centers so they can supply the power they’ll need to carry out their missions when the next disaster strikes. 

The project has lined up $10 million in nonprofit grants and pledges of federal and city government funding so far, and is targeting 24 locations across Louisiana, 16 of which are in New Orleans. Each will be equipped with enough solar and battery capacity to supply more than a week of electricity for critical loads like refrigerators, cooling centers and charging for cellphones and medical devices. 

Beyond serving as shelters for those displaced by disasters, these locations will be staging grounds for volunteers to fan out across neighborhoods and assist residents stranded by flooding or who lack the financial means to evacuate. Every neighborhood in New Orleans will be within a 15-minute walk of a community lighthouse.”

Map of proposed "community lighthouse" locations in New Orleans
A map of proposed locations for "community lighthouses" equipped with solar and batteries in New Orleans (Together New Orleans)

The group’s long-term aim is to secure enough funding to establish up to 85 such centers across the state. Together New Orleans leader Antoine Barriere, senior pastor of Household of Faith Family Worship Church in New Orleans, described the plan as making Louisiana a world model for grid resilience and disaster response.” 

At a meeting last month where Together New Orleans’ members voted to move ahead with the project, Barriere said that building resilience from the local community level up is a central part of that vision.

We’ve spent years saying, When are they going to fix the levees, when are they going to set up cooling centers?” Barriere said. We have to stop saying, When are they going to?’ and start saying, How are we going to?’”

Map of proposed Community Lighthouse sites in Louisiana
A map of proposed "community lighthouse" locations equipped with solar and batteries across Louisiana (Together New Orleans)

A vision for local resilience based on clean energy

The Community Lighthouse plan is part of a broader push among community groups and environmental justice advocates in Louisiana to create an alternative to an energy infrastructure they say has failed them in past disasters. 

That failure was laid bare in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which knocked down all the major transmission lines connecting New Orleans to the broader grid operated by utility Entergy, plunging the city into a blackout. A fossil-gas-fired peaker plant that Entergy had pledged would be ready to power the city in such an emergency was unable to start providing power until days after the storm passed, and Entergy did not restore power to much of the city for weeks. 

Hurricane Ida sparked something in Southeast Louisiana,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of Alliance for Affordable Energy, a community advocacy group and Together New Orleans member. The increasing availability of rooftop solar and backup batteries is enabling dreaming, if you will, about what resilience could actually look like in our city.” 

Pierre Moses, president of 127 Energy, the solar and battery project developer that’s coordinating the technical side of the Community Lighthouse project, saw the same sea change” in the customers and community members he interacted with after the hurricane. Overnight, within a week, residents, laymen and grandmothers in New Orleans were starting to talk about black-start capabilities of power plants around the kitchen table,” he said. 

A handful of sites equipped with solar and batteries were able to keep running amid the blackout, and that caught many people’s attention, he added. That’s brought more credence to the idea that solar panels paired with batteries can stand in for the backup generators that most buildings rely on during outages. 

In fact, solar and batteries can be more reliable and safer than backup generators, Moses said. During the prolonged post-Ida outage, many generators failed because they were running for days on end” and broke down or ran out of fuel. 

Community health center CrescentCare, one of the sites slated for solar panels and batteries under the Community Lighthouse project, had generators fail at both its New Orleans locations, for example. CEO Noel Twilbeck said, We lost quite an amount of vaccines, medications, testing supplies that we weren’t able to keep cool long enough,” at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Even if their generators kept working, residents faced a statewide fuel and transportation crunch that made it hard to secure the diesel or gasoline they needed to run them, Moses said. People were driving for hundreds of miles to find gasoline to bring back to their generators.” 

Misused generators can also be a deadly hazard. In a video presentation at last month’s Together New Orleans meeting, Cynthia Coleman, an organizer with the group, described what happened to members of her extended family after they got a generator running in their home. 

They went to bed with their phones charged and fans running for the first time in a week,” she said. They never woke up. All three members of the family died from carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Rev. Gregory Manning of the Broadmoor Community Church, the founder of Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition, noted at last month’s meeting that heat exhaustion and carbon monoxide poisoning accounted for the majority of deaths after Hurricane Ida. Similar grim statistics emerged from last winter’s statewide rolling blackouts in Texas, with hypothermia and carbon-monoxide poisoning accounting for many of the hundreds of deaths during the weeklong disaster.

All of these factors make solar and batteries a better and safer bet than fossil-fueled generators, Moses said. We need backup power behind the meter, we need it to be safe, and we don’t want to rely on gasoline infrastructure that’s far from reliable in these types of events.” 

The technical details behind community resiliency centers

Moses described three types of projects included in the Community Lighthouse plan. A handful of smaller facilities will get smaller rooftop solar arrays, Tesla Powerwall batteries and smart electrical panels from San Francisco–based startup Span that can direct solar and battery power to critical loads in an emergency, he said. 

Medium-sized projects will be equipped with about 60 to 80 kilowatts of solar PV and about 120 kilowatt-hours of battery storage. This photograph of the Community Church Unitarian Universalist in New Orleans uses an artist’s rendering to indicate the additional solar and battery system that will be added to the church’s existing solar array.

Artist rendering showing a battery and solar installation on a church building
Artist rendering of new solar and battery planned to augment existing solar at the Community Church Unitarian Universalist facility in New Orleans, a Community Lighthouse site (Together New Orleans)

The largest projects will have 100 to 200 kilowatts of solar and a few hundred kilowatt-hours of storage,” Moses said. These projects will be managed through microgrid control systems that can automatically switch over when the grid goes down and maintain a balance between critical loads and available solar and battery power. 

We are using very proven technology and experienced capital providers and existing third-party financing structures,” he added. Louisiana-based solar and energy management firm Solar Alternatives will design and install the systems, and Together New Orleans will contract with an as-yet-unnamed third-party energy services provider to remotely oversee their operations and provide long-term operations and maintenance support. That’s an important step in making sure the systems are ready to handle their emergency tasks, unlike generators that may sit unused for years only to fail to start or to shut down unexpectedly when needed, Moses said. 

The project’s engineering team will also design each building’s power loads to make sure they don’t exceed the supply of electricity available to their solar and battery systems, he added. For example, larger buildings will install individual mini-split air conditioners in one or two designated cooling rooms” rather than trying to keep an entire building’s HVAC system running during outages. 

A resiliency resource that can earn money and combat climate change

Solar panels have another major benefit over generators: They generate carbon-free power that can reduce utility bills even when the grid is up and running. We see no cost savings from the generator. It’s extra fuel costs,” CrescentCare’s Twilbeck said. With the solar panels, it’s estimated that will save us $16,000 a year in electrical costs, covering about 12 percent of our utility needs for the clinic.” 

Just how valuable rooftop solar is depends on the policies in place where they’re installed, however. Entergy New Orleans, the Entergy subsidiary serving Orleans Parish that’s regulated by the New Orleans City Council, has net-metering policies that offer customers the full retail electricity rate for the solar power generated in excess of a customer’s demand and exported back to the grid. In the rest of Entergy’s territory across Louisiana, the payments for excess net-metered solar have been set at a much lower avoided-cost” rate that makes rooftop solar less affordable. 

Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy emphasized that Entergy has fought against efforts from groups like hers to expand incentives for customer-owned solar and batteries. At the same time, the utility has applied for and received permission from regulators to increase the fees that its customers pay for electricity to cover the costs of repairs after major storms, including Ida. 

Many community groups are leery of Entergy’s plans to invest in building new power plants and grid infrastructure to harden its system against future storms, she said. The utility has been criticized for pushing regulators to approve transmission grid projects that increase the capital costs that it’s able to recover from its customers via higher power bills, rather than investing in projects that some say would make its system more reliable.

Entergy has also been criticized for its relatively poor performance in preventing power outages compared to other U.S. utilities. Local distributed energy systems like the Community Lighthouse project can help neighborhoods during these more common localized outages as well, Burke said, while expanding opportunities for residents to install solar could help reduce utility bills that charge customers for the increasing costs of utility storm repairs. 

Distributed energy as a tool for building resilient communities

Rooftop solar and backup batteries have primarily been a product for wealthier homeowners and businesses in the U.S. to date. But disadvantaged communities have begun demanding access to them as a tool to bolster their resilience against the heat waves, storms, wildfires and other life-threatening extreme weather events driven by climate change. 

New Orleans is home to a number of these efforts. Burke highlighted the Get Lit Stay Lit” program, which is raising money for restaurants to install solar and batteries to keep freezers, ice machines and refrigerators running during power outages. Get Lit Stay Lit is organized by the Krewe of Red Beans, one of the many Parade Krewes, or social aid and pleasure clubs,” that are best known for their roles in the city’s world-famous Mardi Gras festival, but which are, at their root, benevolent associations that provide aid and conduct charitable works in their communities. 

This tradition of community organizing has united a host of otherwise dissimilar groups in New Orleans’ approach to disaster relief, CrescentCare’s Twilbeck said. His organization was founded as an HIV/AIDS service in the early 1980s, and it remains an important resource for the LGBTQ community and people in the city’s service and entertainment industries. But it has found common cause with the churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith institutions that make up the majority of Together New Orleans membership, with a keen interest in equity, in civil rights, in so many things that we are aligned on,” he said. 

That partnership is now allowing CrescentCare to expand its network of local health teams that can canvas neighborhoods and build up lists of community members who may need medical services during disasters, he said. That’s what community health centers ought to be doing: getting to know the neighbors, finding the gaps in care.” 

New Wine Christian Fellowship has found similar value in building relationships with Together New Orleans’ network of faith and community groups, Pastor Bernard said. Members of his congregation are attending disaster-training sessions this spring to prepare for the potential of more devastating hurricanes later this year and making plans with the national and international relief organizations that have provided truckloads of supplies to New Wine and the broader region during previous disasters. 

This organizational capacity has gotten the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy, which in March picked Together New Orleans as one of 14 community organizations to receive technical assistance under its newly created Energy Storage for Social Equity Initiative. 

At last month’s Together New Orleans meeting, Jennifer Yoshimura, a program manager with the DOE initiative, as well as an energy justice and equity leader at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, noted how the group’s plan had jumped out for our application review team” for its holistic approach to resiliency. 

We saw a community banding together in a meaningful way,” she said, from all walks of life, to identify a problem and do something about it.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media.