By Andy Kowalczyk, Renewable Energy and Energy Choice Advocate, PosiGen Solar
It’s often hard to put into context just how unique this time is that we live in. The ability for homeowners to purchase the means to generate their own power via rooftop solar is much more commonplace in 2019 than it was even 10 years ago due to dramatic cost declines. This measure of autonomy and self-reliance with regard to energy generation is often the strongest selling point to customers that may not want to go solar for ‘green’ reasons.
While there are holdouts who simply don’t believe in renewable energy’s ability to provide reliable electricity, many of us know that unlike Peter Pan’s ability to fly, rooftop solar works quite reliably in the daylight providing affordable electricity — whether or not someone believes in it. Homeowners who work in the fossil fuel industry in Louisiana are one such group that increasingly sees the value of solar to provide them with energy autonomy and affordable electricity. It may come as a surprise to some that Solar Power International, widely regarded as a who’s who of the solar industry, has chosen New Orleans as its location in 2021. But for someone like myself who works in the industry and advocates for a renewable energy economy in Louisiana, I know that solar has been steadily gaining popularity and legitimacy in Louisiana since 2007.
The state I live in is rich with esoteric charm and cultural tradition. It’s the only state in the country where a county is called a ‘parish’ and the first day of the Lenten season (Mardi Gras) is a state holiday. There’s pride in food, music and in French surnames — but also in the state’s fossil fuel industry that employs nearly 45,000 Louisianans and therefore holds significant political sway in the state as well. Still, there are many in Louisiana who are becoming solar customers.
It’s hard to go a week in rooftop solar sales without speaking to someone who currently works or has worked in the oil and gas industry in Louisiana. I personally work with many people who have professional roots in the industry. Although my involvement in the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables reaches beyond billable hours regularly, I never find occasion to engage on this issue during work hours. Like all sales positions, I’m there to listen and learn about my client’s needs, and together, (provided there are no shading issues or their utility bill is not too low) we come to a decision about whether or not rooftop solar is right for them. Not to delve into the philosophical too much, but this has a value beyond solar sales in the current political climate in our country.
Refineries are a somewhat ubiquitous part of the scenery driving southwest from New Orleans. The state ranks second in the country for refinery capacity, and it is solidly in the Top 5 natural gas producing states in the country. That’s why it’s not surprising to meet the occasional client in Houma or Laplace in a Valero-branded jumpsuit, earplugs around their neck, to talk with them and their spouse about lowering an average $300 a month Entergy bill.
It’s common to see bills like this during Louisiana’s oppressively hot summers that create a significant demand for air conditioning. After a brief explanation of what their energy use consists of, I usually hear about how often they are at work, and in turn how demanding their work can be. There is a wide spectrum of jobs in oil and gas in Louisiana, but one thing that remains the same is that not many people are home during the day. Net metering can provide an added benefit to rooftop solar customers who are away during daylight hours, and this value is not lost on folks whether their day job is at Shell or Exxon.
I find more often than not that this prospect of buying less energy from their utility is a major driver. It may be the characteristic self-reliance that pervades the Louisianan character, but the reason many oil and gas workers want to go solar has less to do with renewable energy and more to do with how they feel about their local utility. This has exceptions, like a gentleman I spoke to who works in natural gas and said, “The future of the industry might only be another 10 years if hydrogen technology or batteries get any better. You get batteries to last longer, it’s game over for utilities.”
I’ve found time and again that workers in the fossil fuel energy industry understand economics from riding multiple boom and bust cycles in the state as well. They crave energy choice as much as anyone else perhaps because of this. Which is why the decision by the Louisiana Public Service Commission (LPSC) to eliminate net metering in favor of two-channel billing seems like a drastic step backward for the state. This choice effectively lowers the value of solar at the same time it is gaining greater acceptance in the mainstream as a smart way to save money. Disappointment in the LPSC’s decision is shared by many across Louisiana, including both current customers and those who have been considering solar.
Despite this setback, the solar industry will keep hitting the streets to help Louisianans find out if solar is right for them. Simply taking the time to listen to the so-called ‘other side’ can tell you a lot about people. It’s a hidden blessing of working in sales — especially when it comes to solar-energy sales. No matter what their day job is, Louisianans see the value in having a lower electricity bill in the humid, hot summers. They often express frustration with the choice between paying a local utility or having no power at all. This isn’t just about consumer empowerment, it’s about personal empowerment and a stubborn will that is central to the Louisianan character. Meeting customers where they’re at, regardless of why they’re interested in solar in the first place, is the key to closing deals and bringing the country another roof closer to a lower carbon footprint.
Andy Kowalczyk is employed in Louisiana’s rooftop solar industry in addition to being an advocate for the renewable energy economy in Louisiana. He has been involved in utility regulation proceedings as an intervenor for the nonprofit 350 New Orleans regarding a Renewable Portfolio Standard in New Orleans, Community Solar, utility scale solar, demand side management potential and Entergy New Orleans’ Triennial IRP.