Lacking statewide leadership, Louisiana solar advocates take economic message straight to customers
Louisiana has had its share of fits and starts trying to enter the world of renewable energy.
Between 2009 and 2015 Louisiana had the most generous residential solar tax credits in the country. Tens of thousands of homeowners across the state purchased solar systems. Residential solar energy became so popular in New Orleans that by 2016 the city ranked in the Top 10 nationally in installed solar capacity per capita. With the end of the residential tax credits came an exodus of solar employees to other states.
But this year, one Louisiana resident decided to address this lack of statewide leadership on renewable energy by launching a campaign to become a board member of the Washington-St. Tammany (WST) electric cooperative. Slidell resident and WST member-owner Michele Johnson, an internist with no political background, viewed rural cooperatives as the perfect place to promote clean energy due to their democratic nature of being member-owned. Johnson specifically wanted to promote community solar, knowing that Louisiana is one of seven remaining states without any community-solar projects.
(The territory of WST consists of a little less than 55,000 member-owners, concentrated in three Louisiana parishes of Washington, St. Tammany, and Tangipahoa. The territory also touches a small part of Mississippi).
Johnson led a true grassroots campaign which I was a part of, walking into the doors of business owners with supporters to introduce topics such as community solar and an on-bill financing mechanism to support energy efficiency. One such supporter was Doug Hill, owner of Underhill Bonsai in Folsom.
“Out here in the country, we’re not used to thinking in very progressive ways,” said Hill. “People in the country can tend to resist change. But the results of this election can raise the profile of these viewpoints on progressive energy policies. That could mean a lot to us as customers.”
In the end, Johnson came up only 70 votes short of being elected — garnering over 2,000 votes total. While she is considering another run next year, she plans to start a clean-energy meetup group and to try recruit other candidates.
“I was surprised at the positive response to the message of clean energy,” said Johnson. “I’d like to get some of the customers to start calling, emailing their desire for these programs and see how far we can get.”
The member-owners of the WST rural electric territory are learning that other southern electric coops are leading the way in promoting community solar and energy efficiency. Now, they’re starting to ask, will our utilities in Louisiana follow suit?