New Orleans Is Testing Ground for Southern Solar Power

(AP Photo/John Raoux)

Entergy New Orleans broke ground this month on the city’s first utility-scale solar project. The array of 4,000 solar panels will represent firsts for the New Orleans-headquartered energy company too: both the first utility-scale solar installation in their system, and an experiment in advanced battery storage technology. With the project, Entergy is testing the use of a battery that could pave the way to a more efficient solar-integrated energy utility.

“One of the issues with solar panels is availability on cloudy days, at night or generating enough electricity at the right time of day when energy usage peaks,” said Entergy New Orleans President and CEO Charles Rice in a statement. “Our pilot project will evaluate the ability to store and deliver solar energy to the electricity grid when customers need it — not just when the sun is shining.”

The full project will have a one-megawatt capacity, generating enough electricity to power approximately 160 average homes. The battery — a 500 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, to be precise — will be able to store about half of that energy, and slowly mete it out over time.

Gary Huntley, an Entergy New Orleans vice president, says this pilot, which is scheduled to go online in mid-2016, “is really to inform us.”

“We think it’s going to inform us in terms of viability of battery storage … and how it will fit into our system on a distribution side,” says Huntley. “We really don’t know how that battery is going to perform or how it needs to be optimized for our system.”

For example: “The more you discharge the battery, the more you affect the life of that battery, so we’re going to be testing the efficiency,” says Huntley. Entergy New Orleans will also be looking at the long-term cost of these batteries, both financially and environmentally. Right now solar incentives are available at the state and federal level, but Huntley notes they could always change. It also remains to be seen how large batteries can get and remain effective.

“If it’s very successful,” says Huntley, “we’ll have to look at the cost of it and figure out if, when, where, how we add more to our portfolio,” not only in New Orleans but also across Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi, where Entergy operates.

Huntley says the company decided to integrate solar into its system in response to public feedback. Every few years Entergy New Orleans engages in a process known as integrated resource planning, during which company representatives, the New Orleans city council and other stakeholders are invited to review Entergy’s energy portfolio and plans for the future.

“I don’t think you’re going to find many companies around the country that have a planning process that has as much public input as well as other stakeholder input as they develop their resource plan,” says Huntley. “Typically that’s done very in house, very close to the vest of the utility company.”

During the last review, says Huntley, participants asked why Entergy — whose portfolio includes natural gas, nuclear power and coal — wasn’t pursuing more renewable energy sources.

“In the past because of the price of renewables they just have not made it into the portfolio,” says Huntley. But during the long course of the planning process, prices began to drop, leaving the intermittency of solar power as the major hurdle — one Entergy hopes battery storage will overcome.