Going green in oil country: Meet the Godfather of Solar

Solar panels cover the roof of a Sam's Club store in Glendora, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: The letters "B.P." have become synonymous with Gulf oil spill. But remember when they were supposed to stand for "Beyond Petroleum"? Well, even in the heart of oil country, there are some unlikely folks who are thinking "beyond petroleum." Yesterday, we heard from a Texas oil man who's gone green. Today, we meet a Louisiana native who set his state up with the strongest solar tax rebates in the nation. Here's Marketplace's Krissy Clark.


Krissy Clark: This is the story of how Nick Gautraux went from being a newly elected state senator for an oil-loving district in southern Louisiana to this:

Nick Gautraux: They call me the Godfather of Solar.

It's a mantle he's not entirely comfortable with.

Gautraux: Because it's associated with, and I'll be honest with you, they call them tree huggers. When you talk about green, they think about a tree hugger.

And Gautreaux says in Cajun country, it's not trees, but oil rigs that people embrace, and the jobs that come with them. No tree-hugging was involved in the making of the Godfather of Solar. What was involved was a phone-call, that Gautreaux got soon after he got elected. The guy on the other line was the son of his first grade teacher.

Gautreaux: . . . and he says look, I'm building a subdivision, does the state have any type of tax incentives that would help me put solar hot water heaters on these homes? And I said, no, we don't have any thing.

And then Gautreaux thought, maybe they should. He knew nothnig about solar energy, but he had friends who'd served in Iraq... and he figured anything to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil was a good thing.

Gautreaux: You know what, Louisiana's the leader in the oil and gas industry, why can't we be the leader in alternative energy?

So, he wrote a bill -- the strongest in the nation: a state tax rebate for homeowners that cut the cost of installing solar panels in half. But when it started moving through the state legislature, he got more phone calls, this time from people he'd never met, in the national environmental movement. They wanted to help lobby for the bill.

Gautreaux: I put all these people in my iPhone as "solar". I just type in solar and they all pop up. And they were saying, man, you just don't know what you've got there, we're going to come testify in favor of it. And I said, guys, just sit in the background, because I'm afraid when there's too many people testifying, all of a sudden it draws attention.

And so, quietly, in 2007, Gautreaux got the bill passed. Since then, about a hundred solar businesses have cropped up in Louisiana -- bringing a whole new set of jobs to the economy. Just don't call them green.

Gautreaux: Just talk about good-paying jobs. Let's stop the green jobs, cause listen. In the oil and gas industry, you hear good paying jobs. Why do jobs need a color?

I'm Krissy Clark for Marketplace.

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