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NREL Helps New Orleans Go Green

February 27, 2009

New Orleans is going green as it continues rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina – with a big assist from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Sprouting in once-flooded neighborhoods are some new energy-efficient homes featuring rooftop solar panels, extensive insulation and more efficient climate systems. These standards will be applied citywide in schools and hospitals, too.

Photo of Phil Voss

Phil Voss

Many of the improvements are based on renewable energy programs and strategies provided by DOE and the laboratory.

Nor are the energy-saving improvements limited to hurricane reconstruction. Even before Katrina, many of the city's commercial buildings and dwellings were blighted. Entire neighborhoods were built decades ago without insulation and are subject to termite infestations.

The lab's commitment to demonstration projects and community partnerships has encouraged city officials to embrace renewable energy.

Now the motto "Cleaner…Smarter" is stenciled on the city's new buses that run on a 5 percent biodiesel blend, and New Orleans has been selected as one of DOE's Solar America Cities.

"New Orleans has an amazingly vibrant local culture," says senior project leader Phil Voss, who returned to Golden in January after 18 months in New Orleans. He is the lab's first energy expert to be embedded in a field project.

"And until now, that same culture has not been open to many outside ideas – like energy efficiency."

A Huge Challenge

Photo of a billboard that reads 50% tax credit,, and New Orleans is a U.S. Department of Energy Solar America City. The blue and orange billboard has a photo of solar cells on it.

New Orleans is one of the DOE's 25 Solar America Cities.
Credit: Phil Voss

Hurricane Katrina was the single largest natural catastrophe in U.S. history.

The storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005. More than 1 million people were evacuated from the Gulf Coast; 2,541 were killed or remain missing.

Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, causing $89.6 billion in damages. Half of the city's homes were under at least four feet of water.  Three weeks later, the storm surge from Hurricane Rita flooded the city again.

During the city's extended recovery, Steve Chalk, DOE Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and Mary Werner, NREL's Integrated Deployment Manager, established an office in New Orleans to promote energy conservation in the city's rebuilding plans and introduce the use of renewable energy technology.

In addition to assigning Voss, NREL added local staff that included rehiring one of its former employees, Joe Ryan, a New Orleans resident. The NREL/DOE team has advised two dozen organizations focused on recovery and rebuilding.

Housing for Hundreds of Thousands

Photo of a small two story house under construction. It is built on elevated piers several feet high to avoid floodwaters. The front porch is being framed and is marked with bright pink warning tape.

Small, energy-efficient two-story homes such as this one under construction in New Orleans are the result of a partnership among DOE's Building America program and local foundations. NREL is providing energy efficiency advice for the homes' design.
Credit: Phil Voss

DOE has challenged the homebuilding industry to build thousands of new high-performance homes in New Orleans by 2012 under the department's Building America program.

The first homes to be certified as meeting the DOE Builder's Challenge criteria are being built in the Gentilly neighborhood by a philanthropic effort named "Project Home Again" with Green Coast Enterprises and the Leonard and Louise Riggio Foundation.

Four high-performance homes have been completed, and 16 more will be ready by spring. Eventually the project could expand to 100 homes or more. They are reserved for qualifying lower-income Gentilly homeowers whose previous homes were destroyed.

"If that doesn't sound like progress," Voss said, "you don't know the challenges in New Orleans. When it comes to rebuilding, the Big Easy is anything but."

The two to four bedroom houses are designed to reduce energy use by 30 to 40 percent and lower utility bills by as much as $1,000 per year. Key features include:

  • Passive heating and cooling features such as cross-ventilation and screened-in porches.
  • Daylighting with highly efficient "low-E" double-hung, double-glazed windows.
  • Whole-house insulation using high-density spray foam.
  • Properly sized, efficient heat pumps paired with dehumidifiers.
  • Air-handlers and ductwork within conditioned space.
  • Energy Star appliances and lighting.
  • Foundation piers to elevate the houses above the flood plain

By eliminating drafts and removing moisture from the indoor air, residents won't have to overchill their homes to be comfortable, even when summer weather hits 95 degrees with an equal dose of humidity.

NREL and Building America partner Florida Solar Energy Center are improving affordable home designs with the most active homebuilder in the New Orleans Area: Habitat for Humanity. Habitat has built two demonstration houses side-by-side in the Musicians Village district. The organization is expanding its building program in New Orleans by a factor of 10 over pre-Katrina levels.

Catholic Charities is working with Building America and its partner Building Science Corp. on another affordable energy-efficient design. NREL is performing long-term monitoring and analysis of the home's heat pump with enhanced dehumidification capability.

Energy-Efficient Schools

Photo of a view down the street of several small new homes being completed in New Orleans. The bare front yards have been graded, but are not landscaped. A white pickup truck is parked on the street in the foreground.

Twenty new energy efficient homes in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood are ready for their owners, with as many as 100 new homes planned.
Credit: Phil Voss

NREL and DOE also formed a partnership with the Orleans Parish school district to use the Integrated Design approach to building high performance schools.

Of the district's 128 schools open before Katrina, only 84 are expected to be open over the next 10 years. Many of these facilities must be replaced or substantially renovated. Taking into account the decades of deferred maintenance as well as storm damage, the reconstruction price tag for schools alone will approach $2 billion.

So far, four new schools are under construction. With help from NREL's Buildings Group, they will be 25 to 35 percent more energy efficient than code by including new construction methods, energy efficient systems and energy management tools.

That energy efficiency standard has been incorporated in the school district's 10-year master plan. The lab and DOE are completing energy audits of existing schools, too.

In a separate project, NREL's Paul Torcellini and Shanti Pless are consulting on the design of a shared $2 billion hospital complex with Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Energy Policy Development

The NREL team also helped the city council develop a comprehensive energy policy and a plan to generate community support.

The "Energy Smart New Orleans Plan" includes financing for energy efficiency improvements in homes and small businesses, low-income weatherization, a pilot solar thermal and PV component, and a contractor training and certification program.

The state government also offering a 50 percent residential tax credit on the first $25,000 of the cost of an installed rooftop photovoltaic system.

NREL is engaging local utilities, public officials and central business district leaders on integrating power generated by distributed PV systems into the local electricity grid.

— Joseph B. Verrengia