As hundreds of thousands of souls return to the birthplace of jazz, one of the most critical questions facing the Big Easy is how to rebuild the estimated 200,000 homes that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Let’s take some of the estimated $100 billion or more it will take to fix the city and create the nation’s largest, most sustainable solar city.
The logic for creating a solar city is powerful: Not only would innovative, energy-producing housing save thousands of dollars on operating costs for financially strapped homeowners—many of whom weren’t covered by flood insurance—but it would jump-start a new industry, build a badly needed alternative energy infrastructure, and reduce the emissions that cause global warming.
There are now only about 20,000 people working in the solar equipment industry, which is growing at a 20-percent annual rate. At least that many again would be required to provide the equipment to outfit New Orleans as a solar-powered city, adding up the manufacturing, installation and utility-support jobs. Why not give a boost to an industry that benefits our entire country?
Already there is a lot of discussion about how to rebuild New Orleans to ensure that the insecurity and injustice uncovered by Katrina do not return. Yet however that larger land-use debate plays out, many homes will have to be completely demolished. Ideally, the wood, stone and metal from the houses being razed could be recycled and re-used for building materials or levees. That leaves a lot of empty lots and the critical question of home design. If we are to leverage the reconstruction of New Orleans to launch the American solar power industry, this is where we must begin.
The first thing to do is have architects compete to design attractive, sustainable, low-cost panelized homes that could be manufactured in factories and quickly assembled on site. The homes would range from updated yet spacious “shotgun” shacks to antebellum deluxe models.
These new homes would be graced by solar collectors to heat water and photovoltaic panels to provide electricity. Passive-solar designs would capture winter heat and high-efficiency heat pumps would keep them cool in summer.
If all this sounds excessively idealistic, it’s not. The technologies, designs and products exist. The recently passed federal energy bill already has a number of tax incentives for installing solar and energy-efficient appliances. The bill didn’t go far enough, though. For the alternative energy industry to thrive, it needs even more government funding and tax breaks and large scale use. Enter New Orleans.
At present, tax incentives for building solar homes in Louisiana are practically non-existent. While the state grants you a minor break from property tax valuation if you have a solar appliance installed on your home, there are no state tax credits offered. Contrast that with the state of Oregon, which, through a non-profit and state partnership, offers up to $10,000 in incentives to homeowners and up to $35,000 to businesses. Even the new 1,700-page federal energy law gives some carrots to homeowners for installing solar equipment. If you install a solar hot water heater, for example, you may receive a tax credit of up to $3,000. The more generous tax breaks, however, don't go into effect until 2006.
To make solar energy economically competitive with conventional forms of power, the cost of producing it needs to drop by a factor of three. Only mass production of solar appliances and homes can make that possible. That’s why New Orleans is the perfect place to start, requiring only that far-sighted state and local politicians adopt solar-friendly rebuilding codes. That’s because the challenge in front of solar power is not technological. We already have the technology and brainpower on the shelf, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy’s many national laboratories, including the National Renewable Energy Lab. What solar power needs is widespread commercialization.
New Orleans has already given birth to innovative food, music and culture, leaving an indelible mark on the American character. Up until Katrina, she’s always had a sunny disposition. Now it’s time to bring that back and share it with the rest of the country.
John F. Wasik writes for Bloomberg News and is the author of the upcoming book, Merchant of Power: Samuel Insull, Thomas Edison and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis (Palgrave-Macmillan).
© 2005 TomPaine.com