Susan Guidry stepped up as a volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, helping clear debris from the streets as part of a group calling itself the Katrina Krewe. She saw firsthand the disaster’s toll, including the crippling of the power supply. When voters elected her to the City Council, she said, she hardly knew what a kilowatt was. But she came to the conclusion that the city had to change its approach to energy.
“As fragile as New Orleans is with climate change, hurricanes, sea-level rise, I just started researching,” Ms. Guidry said. “That was a lot of hard learning.”
What she found out led her into battle over a question central to the climate debate. Is it wise to keep building fossil-fuel plants — even those powered by natural gas rather than coal — that will be in operation for decades? Or are wind turbines and solar farms now reliable and economical enough to take their place?
Ms. Guidry began her homework after a subsidiary of Entergy — a major utility in a state heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry — said it needed to build a new natural-gas plant to replace an outdated unit in the New Orleans East neighborhood. When the issue arose in 2015, “that probably sounded fine to me,” said Ms. Guidry, whose district hugged the city’s western boundary. “There was solar power, there was wind, whatever. It all seemed a bit ahead in time for that to be sufficient for us.”
But in the course of briefings by city advisers, she began to raise questions. “About a year into it,” she said, “I was like, wait a minute, this is not a good idea.”
A retired trial lawyer who worked on civil litigation, Ms. Guidry began reading books, searching the internet, seeking out experts, finding out how other states and cities were addressing their needs. “Having a legal background,” she said, “you’re prone to search for the facts.”
The advisers had told her that the regional grid operator was requiring the gas plant. The grid operator told her otherwise. Entergy said that solar and wind power were inadequate because the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, and that the associated cost of battery storage was too high. But she saw the economics changing.
Even with environmental concerns and mounting community opposition, Ms. Guidry was the sole dissenter when the council approved the plant last year. “It was very clear we were fighting a utility that wanted to live in the Dark Ages,” she said.
Now, with the project well underway, the opponents have a chance for a do-over. In July, a judge voided the council’s decision, ruling that proponents had used illegal means to win approval — specifically, that actors had been hired to pack a crucial City Council meeting and voice support.
The judge has ordered a new vote. The council is fighting the ruling. Ms. Guidry will not be part of any reconsideration, having left the council last year. But however the struggle plays out, it is being mirrored across the country.
“It was really sad,” she said. “Why the City Council didn’t ultimately say, ‘This totally stinks,’ I don’t know.”