The collapse of Louisiana’s power grid in the wake of Hurricane Ida — falling on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall — has businesses and communities scrambling to bring renewable and distributed resources online across the state.
Ida’s destructive power laid bare the flaws in plans from the state’s main utility to create a more resilient grid after Hurricane Katrina and its failure to bring distributed, renewable energy online in the state.
Entergy seems to be slowly working to correct course and there are plans afoot to add roughly 600 megawatts of solar generating capacity to the state’s power grid. However, communities, independent power producers, and even the Army Corps of Engineers are taking matters into their own hands.
A long-planned hydropower project along the Red River, which meanders from Northwestern Louisiana through the center of the state, is finally getting a boost from a California startup company called Natel Energy.
The company, which recently raised $20 million from investors, is working with the hydropower project developer, Nelson Energy, to install its new hydropower generators on sites along the river controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. For this project, Natel is planning to install between 60 and 90 hydro turbines to retrofit three existing dams and add 80 megawatts of renewable power to the grid.
The company estimates that’s enough energy to power roughly 35,960 average US homes. Natel’s chief executive Gia Schneider estimates that there’s roughly 1 gigawatt of potential renewable power that can be tapped in Louisiana’s rivers.
The state, she said, is actually well equipped to make the transition to emission-free power given the current mix of energy resources that’s heavy on natural gas and nuclear power.
“There is demand for big loads and if we can supply those loads for green power that’s one step in the right direction overall,” Schneider said.
As the Corps of Engineers works with Natel and project developers to bring riverine power to the state, the communities and businesses that lost power after Ida in the Southern half of the state are exploring other new technologies.
Natel Energy turbine. Image Credit: Natel Energy
One of these is the early-stage technology developer Yotta Energy, an Austin-based energy company founded by a Baton Rouge, La. native, Omeed Badkoobeh, is finding new adopters for its integrated solar and storage offering across the state.
Badkoobeh started working in the solar energy space back when Louisiana had one of the best incentive programs in the country for residential solar development.
The program has run its course, but falling solar prices and Entergy’s inability to keep the lights on has small and medium-sized businesses looking to adopt solar energy, storage and microgrids.
“Because of the low cost of solar these days — and the fact that solar mirrors the load — if you size the systems right you get to basically offset the higher retail rates,” Badkoobeh says.
Yotta has designed a new kind of integrated solar and battery device and is integrating that with a gas generator to provide a far more sustainable option for small and medium-sized businesses. The company can also integrate a fully electric system — when the price of batteries comes down far enough to make that system affordable.
Yotta’s main innovation is developing a battery system that can collocate behind solar panels. It’s a battery and inverter system that’s designed to be contained on a rooftop — and the combination makes the system far more affordable.
Demand for greater resiliency is one factor pushing the adoption of new, independent renewable generation, but the sheer cost of fuel for vehicle fleets and the arrival of more electric options is another. “We’re installing three EV chargers with this system. [The owner] has a fleet of 30 vehicles and his fuel costs is his biggest expense,” Badkoobeh said. “Looking at the analysis and payback of the system not just in his electric bill but the future savings of being able to power vehicles from this system… People look at solar from a whole different perspective under that lens.”
Working with a development partner called Ecobuild, Yotta Energy is developing a pathway to bring small solar projects onto the grid (Entergy puts a cap on solar builds at 300 kilowatts before additional approvals become necessary). That’s a little less than half of the energy consumption from a typical American home.
“We are giving a control factor to solar energy,” Badkoobeh says. “Which is what solar needs. If we’re going to get to 45% renewables you have to solve energy and storage and to solve energy storage you have to make it simple and that’s what we believe we have done.”
Meanwhile, in Southern Louisiana, microgrid developers and solar installers are working hard to deploy systems to improve access to renewable energy for local communities in the face of
Entergy’s insistence on large-scale, centralized energy deployment.
An installation of Yotta Energy’s integrated solar and storage panels. Image Credit: Yotta Energy
After Ida, The Footprint Project (no relation) sprung into action entering the city on September 3rd and working with the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to deploy emergency renewable generation systems.
The non-profit first sends assessment teams to determine which projects are most critical and work with local responders to help communities in need, according to a statement from the group.
Footprint’s small scale solar generators were used to power a community kitchen in Houma that needed power for refrigeration and freezers to distribute nourishing meals. While a church in Bourg needed to run laptops and WiFi to process FEMA paperwork for those without access to internet or a computer. Finally the tribal center in the indigenous community of Pointe-au-Chien needed refrigeration and phone charging for their well-stocked and highly-visited supply distribution site, the organization said.
To support the organization’s efforts to address future climate catastrophes Boston-based investment firm Spring Lane Capital has put together The Footprint Resilience Fund, a non-profit funding the development of microgrid solutions that can independently power communities if weather-related disasters impact power grids.
Efforts like the Footprint Resilience Fund help bring low-cost renewable energy to the communities that need it most. But these solutions are temporary installations designed to provide backup power.
Another model that’s gaining traction is one from a startup called Clearloop, which is developing community solar projects in the frontline communities that have been most affected by industrial pollution from fossil fuels.
Clearloop uses funding from corporate donors to develop renewable energy projects in the US, which generate carbon credits those companies can use to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions.
The company isn’t working in Louisiana… yet… but its model does have the potential to work in the state — provided Entergy opens up the Southern grid to more renewable power projects.
Image Credit: Footprint Project
Louisiana needs both large scale renewable power and smaller, distributed generation if it’s going to meet the tall order of powering its residential and industrial economic base without creating new greenhouse gas emissions going forward.
Over the next thirty years the state’s utility will need to find a way to get to emission-free power sources that service the largest residential power demand in the country and one of the highest emitting industrial loads as well.
Community solar could help the state reach its goals, but the development of independent power projects would require more approvals from Entergy and would be accelerated by the expansion of the amount of power independent projects could feed onto the grid.
Right now, that number is capped at well under 1 megawatt (which is enough energy to power about 200 homes). Other states have adopted policies to encourage independent power producers to develop renewable projects, but Louisiana has lagged behind in these efforts.
At Natel, Schneider is optimistic about the state’s chances and the opportunity to point the way toward a more sustainable future. The reliance on natural gas can actually be a positive force in the energy transition, because it’s a flexible source of power generation and can be scaled down as new renewables come on line.
“Louisiana is in a great position to move through the transition,” she said.