What can we learn from a “doomed” city?
At the end of the month, I’m moving to New Orleans, Louisiana – a “doomed” city, according to a November 2015 study which concluded that current carbon emissions levels, even if stopped abruptly, have already “locked in” sea level increases that will submerge the land under more than half of its population. (A fate said to be shared by Miami and Charleston.)
A 2016 report from the EPA confirms that Louisiana is particularly at risk from climate change. It has been losing about 25 square miles of land per year in recent decades, thanks to a combination of natural coastal erosion and the impact of man-made levees and navigation channels, which have interfered with new sediment deposits traditionally gained through natural flooding.
Finally, a new report just published by the Geological Society of America finds that Louisiana is sinking into the sea at a rate of nine millimeters (just over a third of an inch) per year.
Wow! What am I thinking, right?
As an optimistic, soon-to-be resident who happens to be more engaged than most in these issues, I decided to learn what New Orleans is doing to address climate change. Have they shifted policies, upgraded standards and leveraged funding that came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to not only improve flood prevention infrastructure, but to also take advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild more energy-efficient buildings? Are they engaging residents in energy efficiency and supporting renewable energy generation?
Resiliency and erosion abatement programs are in place.
There are many visible projects, both completed and underway, addressing sediment erosion and improving the city’s flood prevention infrastructure. The city introduced a Resilience Strategy in August 2015 to address water and land management and the infrastructure changes needed to correct past mistakes.
Groups like Restore the Mississippi River Delta, a coalition made up of the National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society and other local and national environmental groups are working to reconnect the river to its delta, build sediment to sustain wetlands and barrier islands, and implement community resilience measures, like mandatory home elevation requirements for renovation and new construction permitting. (Houses are being raised up all over town.)
But there’s less action to reduce GHG emissions.
- There’s no Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS): At the close of a two-year Renewable Energy Pilot Program, the Louisiana Public Service Commission concluded, “While utilities, staff and regulators learned a great deal, a mandatory RPS is not needed in Louisiana.” While the commission cited the prohibitive costs of renewable energy at the time (2012), costs have come down dramatically and the issue has not been revisited.
- There are no carbon emission reduction goals (yet): New Orleans has signed on to the Compact of Mayors, and commitments to complete a climate action plan are included in the city’s resilience strategy and the city’s Plan for the 21st Century. A Carbon Footprint Report was completed in 2009 and according to ACEEE, a climate action strategy is scheduled for launch in 2017, with reduction goals set for 2030.
- There is an energy consumption reduction goal: New Orleans City Council Resolution R-15-599 creates incentives for Entergy New Orleans (the local electric utility) to ramp up energy savings to 2% of sales annually after 2020. Entergy offers a wide range of business and residential energy efficiency programs and incentives to help achieve this goal.
- Funding is available: In addition to incentives, there is a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program which offers homeowners loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects to be repaid through property tax bills for up to 20 years. But marketing efforts for the program seem to be limited to a phone number and a bare-bones Facebook page.
- Building standards have increased (a little): In 2015, the City finally updated building codes to mandate the application of the 2012 International Residential Code, but they opted for the 2009 code standards for energy efficiency.
- Renewable energy construction is getting underway: Entergy has made a public commitment to maintain carbon emissions below year-2000 levels, and has committed to pursue up to 100 MW of renewables. Their first 1 MW solar array was completed last year to power approximately 160 homes. They’ve also just selected three proposals for approximately 45 MW of new solar – two of which will support rooftop solar on existing buildings and properties in Orleans Parish.
The Bottom Line:
I had hoped that New Orleans would be in the vanguard in the fight against climate change, considering their long-term prognosis. And while the city is a shining star compared to most of the Southeast, I’m seeing a mixed bag of still unannounced targets, a reasonable consumption reduction goal, standard building codes, small scale pilots and plans for renewable energy.
New Orleans missed a rare opportunity to adopt stricter energy efficiency standards at a time when a huge percentage of its homes and commercial buildings were being re-built and renovated. But I can attest to the fact that reconstruction activity is still booming and the real estate market is hot. (I’m obviously one of many wild-eyed optimists.) An engagement program to make energy efficiency and renewable energy a priority for new home builders, renovators and buyers could still make a substantial impact. And there’s great room for improvement for marketing the programs that already exist.
I’m still hopeful (I’ve invested in real estate), but the clock is ticking!