April 19, 2023

Story originally published in Government Technology.

New Orleans was decimated on Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina forced levees to buckle, battered the electrical grid and killed 1,392 people. On the same day, 16 years later, Hurricane Ida claimed more than 80 lives. These tragedies exposed vulnerabilities in the city’s infrastructure, leading to calls for a more resilient energy system — one that could help prevent the devastation of those tragic days.

Over the past few years, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has been sharing her vision for a more sustainable power grid.

“As we see more frequent and stronger storms, we witness how fragile our power system is and know that we cannot solely rely on it to power our homes,” Cantrell said in a 2021 press release. “We must look at green alternatives as a backup and start promoting those as options to our residents.”

In 2021, the mayor’s office worked with the nonprofit FUSE to recruit Ruda Pollard, a senior community marketing manager for residential renewable energy company PosiGen, for placement in the city’s economic sector for a one-year fellowship. With his experience as a community advocate and solar education professional, Pollard was tasked with implementing and enhancing renewable energy projects in New Orleans.

“Following Hurricane Ida when all eight city transition lines were down, city officials partnered with FUSE, bringing me in to help understand and find possible solutions that could deliver lifesaving power to residents during outages while making the utility grid more resilient,” Pollard told Government Technology. “Embedding my position within the Office of Economic Development focused more attention on the need for industries and workforce development entities to work collaboratively in order to play major roles in the energy generation transition.”

Pollard was tasked with helping broaden resiliency tools for the New Orleans power infrastructure by supporting the implementation of a new pilot of microgrids: small-scale electrical grids that can enable local sources of energy, such as rooftop and battery storage, to keep electricity working when storms or other events shut down the larger grid. These microgrids can be powered by a variety of sources, including solar panels, wind turbines and natural gas generators. City officials theorized that this technology could help prevent blackouts and other disruptions to critical infrastructure in specific locations such as areas with hospitals and emergency response centers.

“With surrounding parishes being told to expect up to 20-plus days of outages following major storm events, it was necessary to seek out opportunities to build systems that will be more reliable, generate energy closer to use locations and increase localized energy independence,” Pollard said.

Pollard helped launch a solar microgrid project through Solar for All NOLA, a partnership between the New Orleans mayor’s office, PosiGenSolar AlternativesGlobal Green USA and Entergy. The goal is to promote the benefits of solar power and implement new technology with a focus on equity and strengthening the grid.

The initiative works by providing qualifying families with free rooftop solar panels and energy efficiency upgrades which can significantly reduce bills for residents while promoting the use of renewable energy. The program also helps reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“Solarized campaigns and programs have been established across the country, and the momentum for energy transformation in New Orleans continues to grow,” Pollard said. “Combining the interest of generating renewable energy that can be distributed to a larger area with critical site locations could streamline communication and distribution of services.”

By partnering with local, state and federal agencies to identify eligible households and nonprofit organizations, Solar for All NOLA has reached a broader audience in the past few years. The program encouraged homeowners and businesses to undergo solar assessments, facilitating 75 new solar installations since 2020.

“Initiatives to electrify houses of faith, restaurants and deploy mobile battery storage assets in times of crisis can and have converged in New Orleans with multiple voices offering innovative solutions that help people, strengthen community and create careers that are non-exportable,” Pollard stated. “Finding new ways to engage and drawing closer ties to government, community and industry is integral to the success of any solarized programming.”

One of Pollard’s secondary goals was to help the city establish community resiliency nodes — predetermined locations set aside for coordinating and implementing resilience-building efforts such as disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

“One iteration of a resilience node could be a centralized intersection with a grocery store, bank, public library or office space with access to major thoroughfares that can act as a shelter, distribution point and storm service site,” Pollard explained. “Key areas of interest have been studied and have identified communities with city-owned facilities that would serve the greatest need.”

The Sankofa Community Development Corporation (CDC) is one New Orleans community resiliency node. The nonprofit promotes economic development and community empowerment in the Central City neighborhood. The node was created in response to the vulnerability of Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, a flood-prone zone also susceptible to other environmental hazards such as heatwaves and severe storms.

This particular community resilience node aims to mitigate the impact of these hazards by offering services and programs to support disaster preparedness and community resilience. One of those services is Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, which equips community members with skills such as first aid, search and rescue and disaster psychology, enabling them to support emergency responders in times of crisis.

Entergy, the integrated energy company that provides electricity in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has been a significant partner in the efforts to enhance the power grid in New Orleans outside of its involvement in Solar for All NOLA. One of its central initiatives has been the construction of large-scale solar farms in Louisiana. These farms can generate enough electricity to power tens of thousands of homes, representing a significant expansion of clean energy in the region.

Entergy has also implemented advanced metering technology, allowing customers to track their energy usage in real time.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy selected New Orleans as one of 22 communities nationwide to receive support from its Communities Local Energy Action Program (LEAP). The initiative is designed to help energy-burdened communities establish measurable systems to move to clean energy.

“It’s really beneficial that New Orleans was chosen among the cohort of cities participating in Communities LEAP and the Justice40 Initiative, which offer technical assistance from federal agencies to plan climate action implementations,” Pollard said. “Through these initiatives, hydrogen and wind power generation are being explored as additional options to meet growing energy demands.”

With the city setting a goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, Pollard believes that resiliency does not only lie in technological tools and advancements, but also in the hands of its citizens.

“New Orleanians have proven to care about their culture and communities, returning after evacuations, rebuilding after storms and continuing to welcome others to join in our particular uniqueness,” Pollard said. “The resiliency of our city shines through our people and the natural, renewable resources we collect will only make that shine brighter.”