Over the next three years, there could be enough solar-generated electricity in Louisiana to power 60,000 homes in a state rich with oil and gas and crisscrossed with pipelines.

While natural gas remains the dominant power source in the state, with nuclear, coal and hydroelectric trailing far behind, solar is inching into play in a movement toward diversifying power sources and bolstering renewable energy to replace aging facilities and particularly coal to reduce emissions and fight climate change.

That solar movement in Louisiana, for now, is being driven by Entergy Louisiana as the purchaser of electricity through long-term contracts with companies that are building and operating solar farms.

Southeast Louisiana is emerging as the hub for six of seven solar farms that would produce nearly 600 megawatts of electricity combined. Two are already constructed in West Baton Rouge Parish and New Orleans East; two are under construction in Washington and St. James parishes; and three more were put out vying for a contract with Entergy for proposals in West Baton Rouge, East Feliciana and Morehouse parishes.

Separately, Pineville-based electric utility Cleco, which has a regulated unit serving 24 parishes primarily in central and south Louisiana and an unregulated unit serving nine Louisiana electric cooperatives, announced it's looking to add 400 megawatts of solar electricity. The company said "as existing resources are retired, replacement capacity is expected to come primarily from new renewable technologies."

This summer, Cleco sought help from an independent consultant to structure its new venture into building a solar farm portfolio, according to Louisiana Public Service Commission records. However, the process is not far enough along for companies to start submitting proposals for projects.

Add to that, more than 100 megawatts of electricity already being generated from privately-owned solar panels sitting on the rooftops of individual residences or on commercial buildings. In Louisiana, with its long hot summers and wet chilly winters, one megawatt powers the equivalent of 100 homes.

The nearly 600 megawatts of electricity the Entergy-linked solar farms will generate for the power grid would match the production of one smaller-scale natural gas-fired power plant and be a small portion the power produced in the state.

To put that 600 megawatts into perspective, solar power would amount to just 3% of the utility and public power generation capacity in Louisiana if it were part of the current mix — compared to natural gas, 70.9%; nuclear power, 11.3%; coal, 9.6%; petroleum coke and liquids, 4.9%; and hydroelectric and biomass, 0.3%.

"As we retire our low-sulfur coal-powered generation, Entergy will evaluate the appropriate mix of replacement resources as part of our continued effort to reliably provide power at the lowest reasonable costs, while mitigating customers’ exposure to cost and reliability risks," Entergy has said. "The resources that will replace this low-sulfur coal-powered generation will be a diverse mix of power generation, which will include zero-carbon renewable energy resources."

But it's unclear whether the addition of solar energy to the grid, the cheapest new construction electricity option on the market, would drive down electric bills for commercial and residential customers. Instead, it's likely the new electricity generation cost, as with the addition of any other new capacity, would be added to monthly bills spread across all ratepayers. For example, a 20-megawatt solar farm in New Orleans added about $1.50 to the monthly bill of ratepayers there.

West Baton Rouge Parish saw the state's first utility-scale solar farm, 50 megawatts, that is being connected to the power grid under a 20-year power supply contract with Entergy. The facility was recently acquired by Helios Infrastructure, a joint venture between Sol Systems and publicly traded Nationwide Insurance. In New Orleans East, the smaller 20-megawatt solar farm tied to Entergy cost $42 million, while a solar farm similar in size to the one in West Baton Rouge cost $78 million.

Two solar farms controlled by New York-based D.E. Shaw Investments are under construction: the Iris project in Washington Parish on LSU AgCenter property and in St. James Parish — totaling another 70 megawatts of solar power for the grid in 2021. The Washington Parish solar farm is estimated to cost $75 million and in St. James $30 million, according to state economic incentives records. 

In June, a new proposal process began and Entergy expects to start negotiations soon with companies interested in building three additional solar farms in West Baton Rouge, East Feliciana and Morehouse parishes, if power purchase contracts are awarded.

At least one company, San Francisco-based Ecoplexus, has emerged as a potential bidder for two of the three solar farms: a $308 million project in Pride in East Feliciana Parish and $240 million project in Bueche, north of Port Allen, in West Baton Rouge Parish. Information on the projects was contained in documents seeking state economic incentives through the Industrial Tax Exemption Program for manufacturers, which could mean an 80% property tax abatement for up to 10 years on the projects if approved by the school boards, sheriffs and councils in those parishes. The projects could support 1,000 construction jobs if built, but yield only two full-time positions once completed.

Ecoplexus executives did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The company has developed and financed more than 75 projects in California, North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado and Minnesota, with more than $750 million in projects totaling 1 gigawatt around the world.

Even without government subsidy, utility-scale projects of 10 megawatts of solar power and above, is the cheapest form of electricity, according to global research firm Lazard.

The Sierra Club environmental group recently conducted a report that asserts it would be cheaper in the long-run to replace coal-fired power plants with utility-scale solar and wind projects in Louisiana.

Wind got a plug recently during the opening session of a Climate Initiatives Task Force appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The governor's office announced that it has asked the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, to create a federal, state and local task force to develop wind farms off the state's coastline.

That meeting marked the first time that the 23 representatives of industry, environmental groups, various state communities, state government officials and scientists met to create a greenhouse gas reduction strategy that would result in the state's emissions dropping by between 25% and 28% by 2025, and meet a "net zero" emissions goal by 2050.

Entergy is following a similar plan to hit "net-zero" emissions by 2050 and stop the use of coal that represents 4% of its owned and leased electricity generation portfolio. To make that happen, the company expects in the future to stop using coal at Nelson 6 in Louisiana and at its Arkansas coal plants by 2030. By 2022 Entergy expects to have 381 megawatts of solar in its Arkansas portfolio. 

Entergy noted that it is exploring using existing coal facilities for solar generation or solar generation with gas-powered backup — under a directive from a Louisiana Public Service commissioner.

Solar panel technology is not new but the cost to build solar farms has dropped significantly in recent years. Meanwhile, institutional investors are eager to snap up market share for their investment portfolios to meet sustainability commitments.

"It's economics driven," said Richard E. Walsh, managing partner at Madison Energy Investments, a New York-based fund that invests in renewable energy projects such as solar. "The cost to install has come down; the components and the financing costs have come down as it becomes more mature," he said, "and there's more interest from institutional investors." That's being driven by environmental, social and corporate governance initiatives that institutional investors have embraced and by customer demand, he said. 

Likewise, major corporations that are big users of electricity are looking to be more environmentally friendly by sourcing more of the power they use from the sun, wind or water.

Walmart, for example, has sustainability goals and a sizable footprint in Louisiana. The retail giant has sought more access to renewable energy in the state, which has been a factor pushing the Cleco and Entergy moves forward. Walmart has been at the table for discussions through the Louisiana Public Service Commission about the potential for what is called a green tariff option that allows customers to tie their electricity purchases to renewable energy sources.

"I think one of the big challenges that we're seeing here is that solar power, wind power or renewable energy shouldn't just mean a higher cost (for ratepayers)," said Jessica Hendricks, state policy director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization. "It's about striking a balance. But that's what Entergy Mississippi is doing with their green pricing programs and I think there's a push to do that in Louisiana as well, a premium on top of your existing bill for a percentage of renewable resources. If you can lock in that long-term pricing then the customers have a better chance of receiving those benefits as opposed to shouldering those costs."

Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.