NEW ORLEANS – Susan Guidry volunteered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, helping clear street debris as part of a group calling herself Katrina Krewe. She saw firsthand the number of the disaster, including the power outage. When voters elected her to the City Council, she said, she barely knew what a kilowatt was. But she came to the conclusion that the city needed to change its approach to energy.
"As fragile as New Orleans is with climate change, hurricanes, rising sea levels, I just started researching," said Guidry. "That was very hard to learn."
What she discovered led her to battle as a central issue in the climate debate. Is it wise to continue to build fossil fuel plants – even those run on natural gas rather than coal – that will be in operation for decades? Or are wind turbines and solar plants now reliable and economical enough to replace them?
Guidry began his homework after a subsidiary of Entergy – a large company in a state heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry – said it needed to build a new natural gas plant to replace an outdated unit in eastern New Orleans. When the problem arose in 2015, "it probably felt good," said Guidry, whose district embraced the city's western border. “There was solar power, there was wind, whatever. It all seemed a little early in time so that was enough for us. "
But as the city councilors instructed, she began to raise questions. "About a year later," she said, "I was like, wait a minute, that's not a good idea."
A retired civil litigation lawyer, Guidry began reading books, searching the internet, looking for specialists, finding out how other states and cities were meeting her needs. "Having a legal background," she said, "you're prone to research the facts."
The councilors told her that the regional grid operator was demanding the gas plant. The network operator told her otherwise. Entergy said solar and wind energy was inadequate because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, and the cost associated with battery storage was too high. But she saw the economy change.
Despite environmental concerns and growing community opposition, Guidry was the only dissident when the council approved the plant last year. "It was very clear that we were fighting a utility that wanted to live in the Dark Ages," she said.
Now, with the project underway, opponents have a chance to start over. In July, a judge overturned the council's decision, stating that the proponents used illegal means to gain approval – specifically, that the actors had been hired to organize a crucial City Council meeting and voice support.
The judge ordered a new vote. The board is fighting the decision. Guidry will not be part of any reconsideration after leaving the board last year. But as much as the fight happens, it is being reflected across the country.
Utility companies are investing tens of billions of dollars in natural gas plants, insisting that renewable energy is not ready to serve as the main source of electricity, while environmentalists and many states are pushing against this argument.
In Virginia, Dominion Energy has proposed up to 13 new natural gas plants. In Florida, TECO Energy has been approved to replace a coal-fired power plant with natural gas, even as a major state utility is building the world's largest energy storage facility as part of a major investment in renewable sources. In California, the AES plant developer received approval in 2017 to build new gas plants in Long Beach and Huntington Beach, despite protests from residents and consumer advocates calling for carbon-free power sources.
But as cities and states increasingly issue 100% carbon-free electricity mandates in the mid-century, California and Arizona plan or build renewable energy projects for less than the cost of natural gas plants like the one approved in New York. Orleans.
"Many utilities continue to sell the story that gas is the bridge we now need for the future of clean energy," said Bill Corcoran, director of state strategies at Sierra Club, who researched gas plant projects across the world. the country. "I think it's about arresting as much as you can now."
A Potemkin Protest
Entergy New Orleans, a subsidiary of an energy company with 2.9 million customers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, has built a reputation in the city for its reluctance to adopt clean energy.
The utility said it needed the gas plant to replace an old and inefficient unit at its Michoud plant south of Interstate 10 and Lake Pontchartrain in mostly African-American and Vietnamese-American neighborhoods. The utility argued that the replacement plant – known as the peak, referring to periods of high demand – would help ensure that the city had electricity during the Gulf Coast's sweltering summer days, or if access to power elsewhere Louisiana or neighboring countries were lost during a disaster or other event.
"They never looked for alternatives," said Monique Harden, assistant director of the Deep South Environmental Justice Center, which has filed lawsuits to stop the project.
The natural gas plant was pending City Council approval, and at a crucial public hearing in October 2017, dozens of supporters crowded the room with signs and T-shirts saying “Clean Energy. Good works. Reliable power. Several testified in support of the factory, and the group occupied so many hearing seats that opponents could not come in to speak against it.
The project was approved a few months later. But a complaint lodged by the Harden organization to federal tax authorities stated that the non-profit Entergy Charitable Foundation had “recruited recipients of its charitable donations to hold public positions in support of the proposed gas plant as a counterpart exchange for donations, as well as lobbying the New Orleans City Council. "
Keith Keough, who moved to New Orleans from Durham, North Carolina, was among those who responded to a Facebook ad looking for actors to participate in a commercial. The ad promised $ 40 to appear, sitting in a room and wearing a T-shirt. Those willing to read a script during the meeting received up to $ 200.
"I was practically homeless and needed the money," said Keough, 41. "They gave us these orange shirts. When we went to the City Council building, they told us not to talk to any of the reporters."
He then said he received $ 40 plus some money for food when he and about 40 people gathered at the local Dave & Buster to receive their payments.
Astroturfing – a seemingly popular effort with fabricated support – has been reported by The Lens, a local news organization. This led a local judge to overrule factory approval, calling the use of paid actors a violation of public meeting laws.
"I still think people's rights have been violated for not being able to participate in the lawsuit," said Logan Atkinson Burke, CEO of Alliance for Affordable Energy, a non-profit consumer organization based in New Orleans. "I think the law is directly on people's side."
An Entergy employee said in an interview that a subcontractor, unbeknownst to the company, had paid actors to attend in support of the plant. The company said it fired the public relations firm involved.
The board is trying to overturn the judge's decision. An appeal decision in favor of the board would bring the $ 210 million construction project closer to completion by the scheduled date for January for the operation. If the project is blocked, someone would have to cover the $ 96 million already spent on it.
Based on calculations of a resolution passed by the board on Thursday, if the project proceeds, the utility's customers would pay $ 960 million over the plant's expected 50-year life, generating tens of millions of dollars in profits for the utility. company. Entergy said in a statement that "when the estimated economic benefits of the plant are included in the correct calculations, the total net costs over the life of the unit are expected to be even lower than the $ 210 million cost of building the plant. plant".
On a reporter's recent visit to City Hall, a city councilor declined to discuss the gas-fired plant, citing pending litigation, while advisers to the other six board members did not respond to requests for comment.
Change in the Economy
Until the recession a decade ago, coal-fired power plants generated nearly half of all electricity in the country. But energy from natural gas plants increased as fracturing produced an abundant supply of fuel.
By the end of 2018, about a third of the country's electricity came from natural gas and a little over a quarter of coal. Renewable sources like wind, solar and hydroelectric power plants produced 18% of electricity and 19% nuclear, according to Dice Federal Energy Information Administration.
Along the way, Entergy submitted its bid in New Orleans. But critics argue that the economy has changed since then and that solar energy, combined with energy storage, offers competitive prices. They say this is especially true of a plant like the New Orleans project, which targets peak demand periods, which may require it to operate only 20% of the year or less.
In a September report, the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization, said the utility industry was scheduled to spend $ 70 billion on developing natural gas plants by the mid-2020s, while investing money in electricity generation from clean energy would save $ 29 billion and reduce carbon emissions by 100 million tons. per annum.
Neal Kirby, …