In just 13 years, Abita Springs' elected and civic leaders hope to be able to say that everything in the town, from homes and businesses to public buildings and street lights, runs totally on renewable energy — something only a handful of places can claim.
The goal, which the Town Council adopted by resolution last month, is ambitious, Mayor Greg Lemons acknowledges. Abita Springs, population 2,900, is a small town that doesn't have a lot of money to spend.
But Lemons, who was born in his grandmother's boarding house in Abita Springs, thinks the town's efforts could have an even bigger impact because of its modest size. "If the rest of the country looks at us, they might say, 'If little bitty rinky-dink Abita can do it, why can't I do it?' " he said.
Abita Springs is the first municipality in Louisiana — and the 25th in the entire country — to commit to 100 percent renewable energy, according to a Sierra Club initiative called Ready for 100.
Lemons said he's not a fan of some of the Sierra Club's politics. But the Republican mayor, who has a business background, sees renewable energy, in this case solar power, as a way to save money now and in the future, when fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive.
He's mapped every street light in town, for example, and he knows how much each costs the city per month. Replacing all 256 of them with LED lights, or solar-powered LEDs if they are available, is one of the initiatives Lemons is pursuing. He expects to make the change within two years at a savings to the town of $20,000 to $30,000 annually.
Lemons said he began the process of converting to renewable energy by appointing a 15-member citizens committee, the Abita Springs Committee for Energy Sustainability, that is working closely with his office and the Town Council.
LeAnn Pinniger Magee, who heads the committee, said that several members belong to the Sierra Club, and the Ready for 100 push provided the structure and resources to get started on moving Abita Springs away from fossil fuels.
"We were fighting fracking," Magee said, alluding to the fact that Abita Springs sued to stop Helis Oil & Gas Co. from drilling an exploratory well 4.5 miles southeast of the town. The suit failed, but Helis eventually abandoned the project, which could have led to a fracking well.
"If you are asking people to stop using petroleum for energy, you have to offer an alternative," she said.
Magee said the response has been positive, even though she characterizes Abita Springs as a very conservative community where all the elected officials are Republicans and half of the town's revenue is generated by the sale of natural gas.
But Abita Springs also has what Magee called its quirky side. Artists flocked to the town in the 1960s, and a music scene has taken off from what was initially called the Piney Woods Opry.
Abita Springs has a history as a spa town as well, and it cherishes its association with pure water and air.
"People have always come to Abita Springs to escape the norm, escape the crowds," Magee said.
The reaction to the initiative so far has been completely positive, Magee said, pointing out that the council's resolution was adopted by a unanimous vote.
So far, 26 cities and towns have joined in the Sierra Club campaign, spokesman Shane Levy said, ranging from big cities like San Diego and San Francisco to rural places like Abita Springs.
But only six municipalities in the country have actually achieved the goal of going completely renewable, Levy said, including Burlington, Vermont; Aspen, Colorado; and, most recently, Georgetown, Texas, outside of Austin.
Georgetown operates a municipal electric company, Levy said, and achieved the goal by buying 75 percent of its power from a nearby wind farm and 25 percent from solar energy.
Abita Springs doesn't have the advantage of running its own power company. But Lemons and the committee have laid out a series of steps, including working with Cleco to have net metering so that the town can generate its own power through a solar grid.
Lemons, who will meet soon with the president of Cleco, points to the example of an old sod farm in Monroe that was turned into a solar farm. He'd like to see the same thing happen with an old sod farm in Abita Springs.
In the nearer term, Lemons has been working on making the quaint 127-year-old Town Hall energy-efficient, beginning with replacing lights, adding insulation and replacing an inefficient air-handling unit. Solar panels on Town Hall will come next, by the end of this year or early next, followed by other public buildings.
"We don't want to spend lots of money on rooftop solar if half of (the power) is going right out of the window," Magee said. "Cleco can help us do these projects."
When the town replaces its sign, which was destroyed by a vehicle, it will be run on solar power, Lemons said. Abita Springs also plans to install two electric vehicle charging stations that will enable people who drive electric cars to charge up for free.
While there are only 732 electric vehicles in Louisiana, Magee said the federal government has a map showing the locations of charging stations, and people plan trips around them. "People will take notice and think about it," she said.
Getting the town's public buildings on solar power is a way of setting an example, both Lemons and Magee said.
They also point to Abita Brewing Co., which has one of the largest solar arrays in the state and other environmental initiatives, like a biogas generation plant that converts the brewery's wastewater to natural gas energy, according to Director of Brewing Operations Jaime Jurado.
Although the company moved outside the town, Lemons said it is still an important partner to Abita Springs, and both the mayor and Magee point to it as a leader in environmental initiatives.
As for homeowners, Magee said her committee hopes to serve as a good resource for people who are ready to go solar. Cleco also has programs to help homeowners make their homes more energy-efficient, she said.
If people see that they can save money, Lemons said, they'll have an incentive to use solar power.
Saving money for the town is only part of why the mayor is pushing the initiative, however. "Protecting the future is part of my job as mayor,'' he said.
Louisiana has been "out of skew as far as (favoring) business over the environment,'' he said, an imbalance he said will continue until politicians understand that it's important to look beyond finite energy resources.
This story was altered on May 7 to indicate that Georgetown, Texas, is outside of Austin, not Houston.