Solar America Cities/New Orleans: solar is alive and well in the Who Dat Nation

The City of New Orleans became a Solar America City (SAC) in 2007, just two years after Hurricane Katrina.  The overwhelming destruction of the infrastructure offered one of those rare opportunities to rebuild the City sustainably from the ground up using including energy efficiency and solar technologies.

Enterprising SAC partners have, despite traditional bureaucratic obstacles, kept activities moving along at a brisk clip.   Growing the green workforce has emerged to be a key facet of the City’s SAC work.

Rebuilding a city is one thing; finding qualified workers to do the job is quite another.

“We’ve trained more than 200 students for PV in New Orleans (more than 275 statewide)—there are some 65 companies installing PV in Louisiana,” said Stephen Shelton, Director of Louisiana CleanTech Network (LCTN), an SAC partner.  “That’s had a huge impact on the number of installations:  we went from less than 10 residential PV installations/year to more than 160 statewide in 2009, a large number of which were in New Orleans.  We expect installations to increase by a factor of four in 2010.”

LCTN, a membership-driven non-profit facilitate the formation and growth of the clean technology industry in Louisiana, focuses on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building.

Janet Hughes, who has worked with LCTN since June 2008 to design and implement the solar training program, and who is currently executive vice president of solar and training for Ontility, said, “We thought that we would be training technicians, but the reality is that we are mostly training businesses: electrical, HVAC, roofing, and building contractors who are looking at ways to expand their businesses into solar.  We also attract skilled individuals and professionals who want to work for solar businesses as technicians or in sales. And we have attracted engineers and architects wanting to include solar into their work.”

Hughes said they’re creating workforce development surveys to learn where their students have ended up.

In July 2009, LCTN announced Ontility as its partner for the solar technology training program that includes both PV and solar thermal. Ontility’s training program is ISPQ accredited for continuing education.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve trained site survey technicians, entrepreneurs, installers, sales people, designers, but we don’t have a firm number of how many of the 300 we’ve touched are working in the industry,” said Shelton.

An unusually generous incentive— 50% of the first $25,000 of the cost of each system (maximum incentive: $12,500/installed system) applies to both solar PV and solar thermal systems.

While the clamor for solar PV training was loud—it was the first solar technology in the queue–solar hot water’s attractive financials have emerged as a training to offer.

“What we like about solar hot water is that it’s a lot more affordable for people who want to go solar but can’t realistically afford PV,” said Shelton. “People have always favored PV over solar hot water, but it’s still pricey for many folks, even with generous incentives.   With the generous tax credit in Louisiana, solar hot water systems are a more affordable solar option, giving a faster payback.  And a faster payback means more users which translates as a faster route to market transformation.”

“The SAC funding provided the seed money to get the training up and running,” said Shelton.  “Now it’s running on its own—it’s self-sustaining.”

Both PV and solar thermal training follows NABCEP’s task analyses.

Other tasks in the SAC grant have mostly been completed, according to John Moore, the City’s Energy and Environmental Policy Analyst.

“We’ve got a few dollars left from the original grant and we’re looking at educational kiosks to be available in new libraries as general learning stations about solar for the public,” said Moore.

One of the bigger solar success stories from New Orleans is the solar schools initiative, a joint effort with the City of New Orleans, the United States Green Building Council, Entergy Corporation, and Nike.

It all started in 2006 when Entergy bought carbon credits from Nike—some $200K worth—to offset its emissions.  Nike took the money and invested it in New Orleans, and with an extra $1.5 million from Entergy, the Solar Schools Initiative was born. Because the schools could not receive the funding, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) acted as a pass through non-profit entity. John Moore, board member on the Louisiana Chapter of the USGBC, assisted in coordinating the effort. Today, there are two solar schools in New Orleans, with some 50 kW installed on those roofs.

In October 2009, the City was one of 16 SAC to receive a DOE Special Projects grant to develop two innovative financing mechanisms:  third party solar tax credit financing and a PACE program.

One of the SAC partners, The Alliance for Affordable Energy, is tasked with educating the community about the benefits of the PACE program.

“When the PACE program finally launches,” said Shelton, “we’ll have a qualified solar workforce–including businesses that employ trained solar workers, poised and ready to respond to consumer demand.  It’s all about market transformation: growing a skilled, qualified workforce, establishing a network of high quality solar installation contractors, and providing the proper regional supply chain of appropriate solar technology products.”

“From our work in the neighborhoods, we know there is a strong interest in solar electricity and solar hot water in New Orleans,” said Christian Roselund, Communications Director and Social Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Energy.  “Homeowners want to go solar, both for environmental and economic reasons, however high up-front costs have been a barrier for many. PACE financing will make solar an option for a wider spectrum of our city.”

“We’re researching other PACE models to guide our folks, and developing rules for the third party tax credit feature,” said Moore.  “We’re shooting for an early fall 2010 rollout.”


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