NEW ORLEANS -- People here are finally seeing a bright side to the catastrophic damage done four years ago by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The city is being rebuilt slowly as what many hope will be a clean, green model for the nation.
"After the storm events happened, now everybody is interested in the environment," said Wynecta Fisher, director of the city's Office of Environmental Affairs. "I hate to say that it came at a good time, but because of the storm, we've been able to build on that momentum."
There is a big push in the Big Easy for dramatically improving energy efficiency in homes and public buildings. The city has purchased a fleet of hybrid buses and has plans to install solar-powered LED streetlights. And the renewable energy sector is drawing up grandiose plans for using hydrokinetic turbines to tap powerful currents in the Mississippi River to generate electricity.
Among the foot soldiers in the sustainability movement is fourth-generation New Orleanian John Moore, who left for college in Atlanta several years ago, with no plans of returning. But as floodwaters receded and his family struggled to patch up their lives, Moore returned as part of the "green" recovery effort. "I'd seen the chaos," he said, "and I knew something needed to change."
Working first for the nonprofit, Global Green USA, Moore helped start redevelopment certified by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program in the Lower 9th Ward, a thriving working-class neighborhood that Katrina turned into a ghost town. Then Moore, a certified energy rater with a background in architecture, moved to city government to work on "GreeNOLA," a plan drafted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology students.
The step-by-step GreeNOLA guide is aimed at boosting the city's existing sustainability policies and environmental leadership. It also sets longer-term goals and milestones, such as boosting the use of renewable energy produced in the region, re-establishing a citywide recycling program, conducting a greenhouse gas emissions study and revamping city transit.
"The MIT-New Orleans connection is working out for us," Moore said. "It ... added a layer of sophistication to GreeNOLA."
Moore's team and Fisher in the environmental office have been slowly implementing the improvements and changes outlined by GreeNOLA after winding their way through the city's bureaucratic maze and around funding shortfalls.
GreeNOLA is expected to get a jolt from the federal stimulus law, with $2.4 million heading to Moore's team. "The stimulus package literally ... stimulated the GreeNOLA plan," Moore said. "We're sort of buried under so much stuff around here -- and all of a sudden, this package came down and it's like a gift."
The stimulus cash will be split between transportation and building projects. There will be $1.1 million to help five libraries that the city is building achieve LEED certification with green roofs, solar panels or other energy-efficiency features.
The rest will pay for installing solar-powered LED streetlights in areas slammed by the storms.
"Some areas up along Lake Pontchartrain -- which was hit pretty hard, pretty much wiped off the face of the Earth -- there are no street lights up there, because it's incredibly expensive to run all the conduit and all the wires and all that," said Zack Embry, the city's renewable-energy permitting specialist who works with Moore on GreeNOLA.
"It would be a perfect situation to implement solar street lights, because you can pretty much stand them right there and turn them on."
Nonprofit spurred action
Solar came to New Orleans by way of a Solar America City designation from the Energy Department, which comes with a two-year grant. That cash paid for streamlining solar permitting for residential installations, writing a comprehensive plan to expand solar technologies, and training developers and craftspeople about solar power.
The DOE grant was made possible by Global Green, a California-based nonprofit, which provided matching funds.
Overall, Global Green has brought in about $15 million in grants and funding for recovery efforts in the city, the group says. And it has helped other groups seeking sustainable and renewable energy change.
The group launched the Lower 9th Ward's showcase Holy Cross project, where the organization is building five single-family energy-efficient homes, an 18-unit apartment building and a community center.
The houses will be sold roughly at cost to residents who lost their homes during the storms, and the apartments will be rented at a discounted rate. Energy efficiency will dramatically reduce energy bills, promoters say. The buildings feature 3- to 5.3-kilowatt solar arrays on rooftops, energy-efficient appliances and a sustainable design that uses 75 percent less energy than a typical building.
Global Green says the project is also an educational tool, as its model home gets dozens of visits a week from people looking for ways to improve energy efficiency in their own homes. The organization is distributing lists of contractors who specialize in energy efficiency work and places to buy the building materials.
"We want to create a different future for this city," said Matt Petersen, Global Green's president and CEO. "One could debate that it doesn't make sense to rebuild New Orleans, given the fact that much of the city lies under sea level, but the fact is, it was going to be rebuilt, so why not make it a model? Why not create a center of expertise in a city that had no green building or energy efficiency experience?"
Global Green has also helped the city rebuild several schools with a $2 million grant from a fund organized by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The group used the money to build two LEED-certified schools that are "PV ready," able to add photovoltaic panels later.
"Our role as a catalyst has been tremendous," Petersen said. "There's been a good ripple effect."
One of the LEED-certified schools, Wilson Elementary School in the low-lying Broadmoor neighborhood, will be the first to receive panels as part of the DOE Solar America Cities grant.
Moore -- who worked for Global Green before moving to city government -- hopes to replicate the success of the school project with the libraries. "We're breaking lots of new ground here," he said. "A lot of people want to touch and feel this stuff, and what better way than through a building they can use that's a teaching tool?"
Outreach, Moore said, is the key to bringing about sweeping change in New Orleans.
"That's one of the biggest things for us, boosting the appeal of 'green,'" he said. "We don't want it to stay sort of a crunchy, granola effort. We want it to line up with national efforts and where the rest of the nation is going with this."
Turbines in Big Muddy?
Many New Orleanians involved in sustainability work say they have seen a sea change in attitudes about renewable energy since Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans native Jon Guidroz, the director of project development for Massachusetts-based hydrokinetic developer Free Flow Power, said he returned to his hometown after the storm to "do something that would be good."
"What I've encountered is unreal," Guidroz said. "There is an open-minded approach to energy and new businesses that I don't think was here before Katrina."
Guidroz returned in January to open Free Flow Power's New Orleans office with a mind toward tapping the mighty Mississippi River for energy.
Free Flow Power, which develops hydrokinetic turbines, has a grand scheme for installing thousands of hydrokinetic turbines in Louisiana's part of the Mississippi River. It has received preliminary permits for 32 sites from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and says it will file for licensing in 2012 and begin generating electricity in 2013.
The turbine developer says it will build 900 megawatts of hydrokinetic capacity in the state -- assuming 600 turbines per mile over 180 miles of river. Those huge numbers are aimed at helping the company overcome the pitfalls of other river hydrokinetic projects, Guidroz said.
"Sometimes folks say, 'Wow, you're going to put a lot of turbines in the river,' but we have to do that to make it economic," he said.
The global financial meltdown has slowed the company's work on what it says will be the $3 billion project -- including sites all the way to St. Louis -- but Guidroz said the company is not going to turn back on a plan that would make New Orleans become a showcase for hydrokinetic power generation.
That is exactly the type of activity Global Green's Petersen hopes to see in the Big Easy.
"We want to help it change its course for the future," he said. "We want to make it a place that's not just about jazz and great food, but a place that's known for ... creating a path for the future."