CHALLENGING THE WAY NEW ORLEANS HOMEOWNERS THINK ABOUT SOLAR ENERGY

THE TIMES PICAYUNE. SEPTEMBER 26, 2010. By Richard Thompson.

Before settling back on Tennessee Street, Ann Parfaite heard from neighbors that her future home, loaded with green building features like solar panels and rain-water collectors, would help cut her electricity bills by a third or more.

"I was hoping they were telling me the truth," said Parfaite, who purchased a three-bedroom, two-bath home last year in Brad Pitt's Make It Right development in the Lower 9th Ward, built in the same place Parfaite had lived for more than four decades until her home was destroyed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans five years ago,

Her neighbors, it turns out, were right.

Parfaite says her monthly power costs are a fraction of what she used to pay. Last month, her power bill hovered around $80. In cooler months like April and May, or October and November, when temperatures begin to level out, her bills stay around $40.

Collins Foots, who lives just up the block, has been likewise impressed.

"Sometimes, my bill will be $24 or $25, even in these hot summer months," said Foots, a retired truck driver who lives by himself in a similar setup on Tennessee Street, which he purchased from the nonprofit in late 2008.

$8.69 August energy bills

A few of their neighbors have paid even less: By May, Make It Right houses had operated at or near net-zero energy consumption 27 different times, meaning a homeowner generated almost as much, or more, electricity than necessary to power the home, said spokeswoman Taylor Royle.

Citywide, Entergy New Orleans, which stands to lose money if many people switch to solar, has counted 25 houses to hit that self-sustaining plateau in the three years since the so-called "net meters" became available.

"It could have been as little as one time, and some of it could have been multiple times," said Jolen Stein, a spokeswoman for Entergy New Orleans.

Those households pay only the electric base rate and additional general fees approved by the City Council, which would have totaled $8.69 in August.

In a city where the average family income barely topped $37,000 last year and 23 percent of people live below the poverty line, the potential savings could make a big difference, observers say, especially as recent government research showed the New Orleans metropolitan area's median monthly cost of housing has risen nearly 33 percent, from $662 in 2004 to $882 in 2009.

Their low bills come as most residents in southeastern Louisiana have seen a slight increase in their recent utility expenses, because of the rising price of natural gas and above-average temperatures for much of the summer, the peak power usage season.

What's more, a third of the 150 specialty meters installed in New Orleans have been set up in homes in the Lower 9th Ward, according to Entergy New Orleans, sending a signal to local housing officials and renewable energy advocates that solar and other energy-efficient technologies are beginning to take hold in the rebuilding city.

"It's really just an outstanding accomplishment for any city in the country," said Beth Galante, executive director of the New Orleans office of Global Green USA. "But particularly New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina, and of course the Lower 9th Ward."

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