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Tina Casey headshot

Louisiana Shakes Off Clean Power Blues with New Push for Solar

By Tina Casey
clean power

Louisiana is one of the most vulnerable states in the U.S. to climate impacts, but it has also been one of the least active in the clean power transition. That is about to change. The new 300-megawatt Ventress solar power project, shepherded by eBay and McDonald’s, is part of a wave of solar development sweeping into the state. In light of the dire conditions outlined in the new IPCC report, Louisiana could emerge as a powerful demonstration that swift, effective action on climate change is still within reach.

Louisiana is a clean power wallflower…

The Bayou State is an unlikely candidate for leadership on climate action. It currently ranks a lowly 48th among the U.S. states for clean power, with only 52 megawatts in combined utility-scale solar energy, wind energy and storage capacity.

Despite Louisiana’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and other climate impacts, politics in the deep red state have had some hand in blocking clean energy projects. However, other politically conservative states have been much more active in the transition to renewable energy. Indiana, for example, has less land but is ranked up at 16th for clean energy with 3,275 megawatts worth of wind, solar and storage, partly thanks to its location in the wind-rich Midwest.

To be fair, wind resources in Louisiana and the rest of the Southeast are less than optimal. However, the same cannot be said of the state’s solar resources.

As illustrated by maps generated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), solar resources in the U.S. Southeast are relatively strong. Nevertheless, the Solar Energy Industries Association counts a total of only 190 megawatts of installed solar capacity in Louisiana, including both small- and utility-scale solar arrays. Meanwhile, relatively tiny Northeast states with weaker solar resources beat Louisiana handily. Rhode Island, for example, currently has a total of 412 megawatts, and New Jersey has an impressive 3,653 megawatts.

…but not a clean power wallflower not for long.

The new Ventress project demonstrates how quickly Louisiana can turn its solar power profile around now that leading corporations like McDonald’s and eBay are on board. The two companies are supporting the Ventress project through a power purchase agreement, providing the financial foundation for development to proceed.

Further demonstrating the power of leading corporations to push the energy transition is the developer of the Ventress project, Lightsource BP.

The leading oil and gas company BP acquired a 50 percent stake in the solar power firm Lightsource back in December 2017, shortly after abandoning its ill-fated “Beyond Petroleum” public relations initiative. BP has quite a long way to go before it can claim to undo the damage done by decades of fossil energy extraction. However, in only a few years Lightsource BP has become a leading fixture on the utility-scale solar scene in the U.S.

Lightsource BP has also been among the first leading solar companies in the U.S. to  advocate for agrivoltaics, a field that combines solar arrays with soil preservation, pollinator habitats, and other elements that dovetail with the regenerative agriculture movement.

The Ventress solar power project will be the first solar farm in Pointe Coupee Parish, located in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area. The $300 million project will add 300 megawatts to Louisiana’s solar power profile all in one blow.

In addition to the Ventress project, last month reporter Kristen Mosbacher of Nola.com cited another seven previously unpublicized utility-scale solar power projects aimed at the southeastern region of Louisiana.

“Proposed $200 million projects in Thibodaux and Bogalusa would produce up to 200 megawatts of power each. So would a $145 million project proposed in Singer. The projects proposed in Vacherie would produce 120, 90 and 80 megawatts, with a 50-megawatt facility proposed for Franklinton,” Mosbacher reported.

One recent estimate of solar development in Louisiana puts the state at only 500 megawatts within the next five years. With Ventress and the additional seven projects, the southeastern portion of the state alone is already on track to more than double that estimate.

Putting the farm back in solar farms

Leasing out land for solar arrays has become a source of much-needed revenue for farmers and other landowners. However, introducing new industrial-scale developments into rural areas can easily spark land use conflicts with other residents and stakeholders, and that can pose an obstacle to the pace of clean power development in Louisiana and elsewhere.

Conflict is the last thing that leading corporations like eBay and McDonald’s want to have at their doorstep, and the Ventress solar farm could provide them with a model for easing local tensions while addressing both clean energy and sustainable agriculture.

In addition to abiding by buffer zones required by local ordinance, Lightsource BP cites studies showing that “solar projects can increase wildlife populations and overall biodiversity by allowing soil and habitat to regenerate, since once constructed solar farms remain untouched for decades.”

Additional plans related to agrivoltaics have yet to be disclosed, but Lightsource BP has dropped a couple of hints. “A long-term environmental action plan is underway for Ventress Solar that aims to maximize local sustainability benefits through habitat creation and co-located agriculture to farm the land while also harnessing solar energy,” Lightsource announced jointly with McDonald’s and eBay.

The bottom-line benefits of clean power

Lightsource BP, McDonald’s and eBay also drew attention to the financial underpinnings of the solar power deal. By committing to the large-scale development, McDonald’s and eBay serve as a sort of anchor tenant, enabling smaller energy consumers to piggyback on the benefits of clean power.

“Customer aggregation deals such as this allow businesses of varying sizes and energy needs to come together and spur meaningful development of clean and affordable energy sources in the U.S. This collaborative agreement by McDonalds and eBay is a model we hope others will replicate,” they explained.

Ratepayers are not the only ones to benefit. For the Ventress solar farm, Pointe Coupee Parish stands to realize $30 million in revenue for schools, libraries, health services and other civic infrastructure over the life of the project, providing an economic boost that could ripple into more business for McDonald’s and eBay.

McDonald’s already has a solar power model worth replicating. The company was barely on the clean power radar in the U.S. until 2019, and within two years it has vaulted itself into the lead.

In addition to the Ventress solar farm, last year McDonald’s announced three virtual power purchase agreements covering forthcoming solar power projects in North Carolina and Ohio for 1,130 megawatts combined.

As for eBay, the company has been active in the green data center field since at least 2012, and it has committed to 100 percent renewable energy at the data centers it controls by 2025.

Image credit: zmortero/Pixabay

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey