NEW ORLEANS – The city known more for French Quarter trash than recycling or renewable energy is going green.
In rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina, homes are being fitted with solar panels, organic farming is catching on and the city’s got a new fleet of hybrid buses.
On the flanks of those buses, a catch phrase — Cleaner, Smarter — could be the anthem for the movement by institutions and individuals to slowly turn the city’s environmentally-unfriendly image around.
Maybe the filthy water that flooded 80 percent of the city after the catastrophe in August 2005 made residents rethink the way to rebuild. Or maybe it’s the tax credits or energy price spikes. Whatever the reason, the hurricane created a testing ground for ideas and initiatives.
Before Katrina, government officials rarely talked about renewable energy or “green building.” Solar technology powered little more than parking meters. Environmentalists were shut out of Louisiana politics for decades.
Now, they see a watershed era taking shape.
For example, in the Lower 9th Ward, hit particularly hard by Katrina, some 20 energy-saving homes are using solar panels.
“I never knew nothing about solar panels until after the storm,” said Mable Howard, an 80-year-old doll maker whose five-room home was flooded. The solar panels were donated and installed for free, and her electric bill has been cut at least in half during some months.
There is also renewed focus on restoring habitats that protected New Orleans from storm surge before the destruction of wetlands by the oil industry, timber companies and levee construction. Near the Lower 9th, for example, there are plans to plant hundreds of bald cypress in a bayou to help restore wetlands.
Urban organic farming also has gained momentum, new bicycle lanes are being planned and even the French Quarter is spiffier, thanks to an aggressive cleaning effort.
The greening could gain greater footing under President Barack Obama, who recently named Lower 9th Ward native Linda Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Still, a distaste for environmentalism is reflected in the Louisiana congressional delegation. Even most Democrats are perennial bottom-feeders on a measure of pro-environment voting in Congress by the League of Conservation Voters.
“It takes a very brave person to get your head above the wall here,” said Oliver Houck, a Tulane University law professor and environmental advocate.
For decades, Louisiana’s state budget has been dependent on oil revenue. But some policymakers and investors say a more open attitude could have a big payoff. The state, they say, is rich in water, wind and sunshine — just the stuff for emerging cap-and-trade energy markets, which are aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
Under a cap-and-trade program, utilities that exceed the cap for emissions must either make pollution reductions or buy additional allowances. Those who cut emissions below the cap would be able to sell allowances.
“Louisiana could be a very large source for carbon credits,” said Jon Guidroz, director of project development for Free Flow Power Corp. The Massachusetts company is in talks with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about harnessing power from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers with turbines.
Last year, the New Orleans City Council approved an energy-efficiency program to improve 2,800 properties a year by installing insulation, weather stripping and compact fluorescent light bulbs. The new 39 hybrid buses — operating on a blend of biodiesel, gasoline and electric power — were obtained with a $15 million federal grant.
In 2007, New Orleans became one of about two dozen cities nationwide to be named a “Solar American City” by the U.S. Energy Department, which gave the city a $450,000 grant to establish solar programs.
And there’s an opportunity to train builders, too. A 2,-000-square-foot BuildSmart Learning Center that includes a replica of an energy-efficient home, offers free workshops to teach “green building.” The center also has a showroom of gadgets like dual-flush toilets and low-flow shower-heads.
New state and federal tax credits are driving a niche solar technology market.
“We’re up to 15 employees now,” said C. Tucker Crawford, a salesman at South Coast Solar, a company that had three employees a year ago.
The business installs solar thermal, solar pool heating and solar panels in New Orleans. Crawford credits the boom in business to tax breaks, which allow a homeowner to spend as little as $5,000 for about $25,000 worth of solar technology.
“We’re a little behind the curve,” said city energy manager John McGowin, whose office was set up after Katrina with a Clinton Foundation grant to promote solar and hydropower use. “But we’re catching up.”