Monday, March 5, 2012

Solar Project on French Quarter Home is Still Lacking Juice

A year after the New Orleans City Council voted to let a French Quarter resident install solar panels on the roof of his 19th-century home, the project is no further along. But it's not for lack of trying. In late 2010, Glade Bilby sought approval to install the panels, which turn sunlight into electric power, on one side of the roof of his 3 1/2-story brick townhouse in the 600 block of Esplanade Avenue. However, the Vieux Carre Commission, the city's regulatory agency for the Quarter, voted 5-3 denying Bilby's application.
Tucker Crawford, left, of South Coast Solar,
was to install solar panels on the roof of the Esplanade Avenue home,
back right, of Glade Bilby

Bilby appealed that ruling to the council in January 2011, which overturned the commission's decision 6-1.

At the time, the decision to allow the panels was seen by some local officials and preservationists as a first step toward navigating the challenges of incorporating new technologies and energy-efficiency improvements into historic buildings in the neighborhood.

But despite all the chatter about entering the 21st century, Entergy New Orleans has long maintained that the complex electrical system that serves the Quarter is not compatible with net metering, the key component of solar panels that allows customers to produce power and then send extra electricity back to the utility for a savings.

"I get asked once a week about that. I'm not kidding, at least once a week," Bilby said last week. "People go, 'Well, this is the guy who helped bring modern electricity and methods to the French Quarter,' and I say, 'No, not yet.'"

The electrical distribution system that underlies the Central Business District as well as the Quarter is one utilities use to meet higher reliability needs in more densely populated areas. Power flows in either direction on the service delivery lines, but certain devices stop it from "back-feeding" from one transformer to another, said Melonie Hall, customer service director for Entergy New Orleans.

As federal and state tax credits for buying the solar equipment have become more generous, more people have taken notice, according to state tax figures. Louisiana gives a credit for as much as 50 percent of the first $25,000 spent on a range of technologies, including solar hot water and electricity as well as wind generators, while federal tax credits cover up to 30 percent of the cost of a system.

"When there's a problem, (the distribution system) can't tell the difference between solar power flow and power flow that's due to a fault," Hall said. "So it'll disconnect power to the system thinking that something's wrong, when it's really the solar power coming into the system."

Tucker Crawford, chief executive officer of Metairie-based South Coast Solar, who planned to install the $50,000 setup for Bilby, said he has talked with Entergy since the installation was approved, and realizes now that it is "a very complex system, and it's very sensitive."

"We think it's something eventually that can happen; we just don't know when," Crawford said.

News about the problem with the distribution system didn't come as a big surprise, said Bilby, adding that Crawford explained the situation to him initially but was convinced that it could be overcome. He said the two kept in touch about the project last summer, but as the updates got more sporadic, he became focused on other matters.

"That's totally different from what we originally talked about, and maybe that's why he hasn't called me back," Bilby said about talk of the electrical system standing in the way of getting the panels up and running. "I would bug him once a month about it, and he would give me an update. I thought we were almost there, but apparently not."

Hall said Entergy hasn't ruled out the possibility that net metering could eventually work in the downtown area at some point in the future.

"As with other power companies, we're all doing research on it," Hall said. "As other companies do research, we share that research and we share experiences so that we can learn from that."

At the City Council meeting where the panels were approved, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell cast the lone vote against the proposal.

Hedge-Morrell, chairwoman of the council's Utility Committee, pointed out then that power generated by solar panels in the Quarter and Central Business District could not be sold back to Entergy New Orleans, meaning that hopes of a financial windfall from the panels were unlikely to be realized.

Crawford maintained at the meeting that the situation could change in the future and that in the meantime, the panels could still help Bilby chip away at his electricity costs. Now, he says, that wouldn't make as much sense, because the battery-operated units are bulkier and more expensive than those that use net metering.

Bilby said he remains interested in installing the panels, and said he might reach out to other contractors to see if he can re-evaluate his chances and maybe push the issue with the utility.

"This is 2012, for goodness sakes," he said. "Solar and net metering have been going on for 30 or 40 years."


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