HDLC seeks guidelines for rooftop solar cells on historic homes _lowres (copy)

A New Orleans home, photographed on Aug. 18, 2013, features solar energy to create electricity and heat water. Solar panels, attached to the rear roofs of the home, are mostly hidden from street view.

The New Orleans City Council took the first steps Thursday toward creating a “community solar” program in the city, designed to make solar panels available to renters and low-income residents.

In a victory for clean-energy advocates, the council voted unanimously to begin shaping the rules for such a program, which would allow residents to “subscribe” to a portion of the power generated by solar panels on warehouse roofs or on unused land. They will receive credits on their energy bills in exchange.

The council hopes to approve a final set of rules by the end of the year.

The council also approved steps by Entergy New Orleans to install five megawatts of a planned 100 megawatts of solar capacity on city rooftops, and to move up by a full year the installation of “smart meters” that residents can use to monitor, and potentially reduce, their electricity use.

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Environmental groups were pleased with the moves but complain that Entergy should be moving more aggressively toward renewable energy sources.

During a council committee meeting last week, Grace Morris of the Sierra Club said, "Five megawatts ... is not enough, and Entergy has clearly been dragging its feet."

The council has taken various small steps over the past few years aimed at promoting renewable energy or cutting electricity use, including rebates for customers who install energy-saving appliances, a pilot "smart meter" program for low-income residents and a “net energy metering” program, which lets homeowners who install solar panels on their roofs receive credits on their bills for the power they create.

According to the proposed rules for the new community solar initiative, the program would be open to renters, low-income homeowners and owners with rooftops that can't accommodate solar panels, with a minimum of three participants per solar project. 

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Panels would be placed on rooftops, capped landfills or unused land and could be developed by Entergy or other local solar providers. Customers could either purchase or lease the panels at a price set by the developers.

Residents would have to subscribe to at least one kilowatt of each solar project’s two-megawatt capacity, though low-income residents would not be subject to that minimum.

They would receive a credit on their electricity bills in exchange for their solar subscriptions. If their panels generate enough energy to result in excess credits on their bill, those credits would be rolled over from month to month indefinitely.

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The project proposes to create no more than 55 megawatts of new solar energy capacity in the city within three years, adding to the more than 37 megawatts that already exist.

To prevent anyone from using the program to generate profits and to stop large companies from monopolizing it, no one would be allowed to subscribe to more solar power than they actually need to power their home, and no one entity would be allowed to use more than 40 percent of an individual community solar project.

Similar community solar initiatives have been enacted in at least 17 U.S. states, the council’s utility advisers said.

The council hopes to receive public comment on the draft rules over the next few months and to consider a final set of rules by December.

The council on Thursday also signed off on Entergy’s plan to install five megawatts of rooftop solar power generation, part of a longer-term goal of installing 100 megawatts.

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That project will cost $14.8 million, or an additional 46 cents on customers' monthly bills in the project’s first year, with the cost declining after that, the council was told. 

Entergy will connect the new panels to its distribution system and lease rooftops from participating customers, paying them a rental fee. The pilot project will allow Entergy to gather data on solar power’s impact on its grid, the council’s consultants said.

The council also approved Entergy’s plans to replace all customers’ power meters with “smart meters” by 2020, rather than 2021.

The council requested the shorter timeline, which will add $4.4 million to the original $75 million price tag but potentially result in net benefits for customers of at least $85 million over the long haul.

The meters can provide customers with near real-time data on their electricity usage through the company's website, Entergy spokeswoman Charlotte Cavell said.

The meters have been promoted as part of the council's "smart city" initiative, which involves using data to drive decision-making about energy, transit and public safety. 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.