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With new climate panel, New Orleans City Council aims for money to harden power grid

  • Jan 20, 2022
The Times-Picayune

With the federal government poised to spend billions of dollars on green infrastructure, New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno rolled out a new climate committee Wednesday.

The panel asked the municipal government to switch to 100% renewable energy within three years and recommended that City Hall stop buying gasoline-guzzling vehicles.

Moreno also has bigger plans. Like Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who announced a task forced aimed at identifying shovel-ready projects on Tuesday, she hopes the local government can tap the huge pots of federal money directed at hardening the electrical grid and protecting against climate change, under last year's $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law. Hurricane Ida was a stark reminder of how much New Orleans needs to prepare for climate change, Moreno said.

"Storms are coming at us so much faster, and they're stronger," she said. "We can't afford to make excuses of why we can't meet clean energy and climate goals, but instead we need to find a way to get to yes."

The infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed in November includes a $5 billion U.S. Department of Energy grant program for power grid upgrades. The City Council could play a central role in obtaining some of that money as the regulator for Entergy New Orleans, which saw its distribution system collapse after Ida, with deadly results for some senior citizens.

As an unwilling poster child for climate change, New Orleans has a leg up in obtaining federal money. It also has friends in high places: former U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans is serving as an adviser to Biden, and former Mayor Mitch Landrieu was recently tapped as the White House's infrastructure czar.

In November, the City Council launched a planning process for electrical system resiliency and storm hardening. It is supposed to produce a list of priorities by March 1. Moreno said she hopes it will include ideas for propping up Entergy's utility poles and wires but also for creating "microgrids" that can operate independent from Entergy.

"We have a plan for moving forward with a better power grid and stronger power grid, and as we put this plan together, we brought all stakeholders to the table," she said. "That is going to, at the end of the day, hopefully put us at the top of the list as far as receiving federal dollars."

The newly created climate committee cleaves off some functions previously assigned to the Utility, Cable, Telecommunications and Technology Committee, which is chaired by council Vice President JP Morrell. The utility committee will still be tasked with overseeing the creation of a new Entergy substation to power New Orleans' drainage system. In an interview, Morrell said there is plenty of work to go around.

"Honestly, I'm very appreciative that we spun off climate, because it's such a massive issue," he said. "Unless you have a robust plan with everybody aligned, you basically don't get the money."

Separately, Moreno sponsored two measures that received committee approval Wednesday.

The first is a resolution that urges City Hall and the Sewerage and Water Board to switch to all-renewable energy for their internal operations by 2025. More than 40 cities ranging from Houston to Orlando, Florida, have already set similar goals, according to a presentation given to the council.

Municipal operations, which don't include residences and businesses, consumed 94,000 megawatt hours in 2020 at a cost of $9 million, according to the resolution, making the local government a major purchaser in its own right. The non-binding resolution doesn't estimate how much the switch would cost.

A separate ordinance, aimed at gradually remaking the government's auto fleet, would direct the administration to buy only plug-in hybrid or electric cars starting in 2025. But the ordinance includes a significant carve-out: Departments could request a "public safety" exemption, which means that big motor pools at the Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services could keep buying internal combustion engines that run on gasoline or diesel.

Both proposals now head to the full council. Cantrell's office expressed some caution about the clean energy resolution.

"While the city agrees with the council's objective of moving toward 100% renewable power reliability, the city must balance this objective, in particular, with the immediate need to bring more durable power to the Sewerage and Water Board," administration spokesperson Beau Tidwell said.

In the address kicking off her second term earlier this month, the mayor said she wants New Orleans to "compete for billions, rather than millions" in federal infrastructure dollars. On Wednesday, the mayor stressed the importance of unity between state and local agencies in a statement announcing her new infrastructure task force.

"The work of the ... task force will ensure the agencies within this city and region speak with one voice on the most critical existential issues we face," she said. "Our best chance of successfully competing for these federal dollars is to do this in a holistic and coordinated way."

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