Baltimore Sun

Solar-powered community lifelines

Microgrids explored as safeguards amid natural disasters

- By Rebecca Santana

LaPLACE, La. — Enthusiast­ic church volunteer Sonia St. Cyr lost something she treasures during the blackout caused by Hurricane Ida — her independen­ce, afforded her by the electric wheelchair she expertly maneuvers over bumpy city sidewalks.

“After Ida I was housebound,” said St. Cyr, 74, who has multiple sclerosis.

She did her best to conserve power on her wheelchair, going only to the end of her block or sitting on her porch after the storm made landfall last Aug. 29. It took 10 more days before all of the habitable homes in New Orleans had electricit­y again.

With the lights out and nothing open in her Broadmoor neighborho­od of New Orleans, “It was not fun.”

A project launching in southeast Louisiana aims to help people like St. Cyr who are especially vulnerable during extended power outages as the warming climate produces more extreme weather including bigger and wetter hurricanes.

“Community Lighthouse­s,” outfitted with roof solar panels and a battery pack to store energy, can serve as electricit­y hubs after a disaster, enabling neighbors to recharge batteries, power up phones or store temperatur­e-sensitive medication­s.

They’re being sponsored by Together New Orleans, a nonpartisa­n network of churches and groups that tries to fix community problems.

Organizer Broderick Bagert said they felt “impotent and powerless” as the city struggled to

deliver basics like collecting garbage in Ida’s aftermath. They realized that local government­s couldn’t handle everything alone.

“You can spend a lot of time saying ... ‘Why don’t they?’ ” said Bagert. “But you start to realize the real question is ‘Why don’t we?’ ”

More than just energy hardware, each lighthouse needs a team of volunteers to study their areas, learn who has health problems and who needs medication refrigerat­ed or depends on electric wheelchair­s for mobility. While people with means can evacuate ahead of a hurricane, about one in four people in New Orleans live in poverty, and not everyone can afford to flee.

Hurricanes are also forming more quickly due to climate change, making it more likely that people can find themselves stuck in a disaster zone.

Each lighthouse should be able to connect with all of its neighborho­od’s vulnerable

people within 24 hours of an outage, Bagert said.

“This is not all about batteries and solar panels. There are some other batteries and solar panels made by the hand of God. And that is called the human personalit­y,” the Rev. JC Richardson, pastor of Cornerston­e United Methodist Church, said during an event announcing one of the locations.

The pilot phase anticipate­s 24 sites — 16 in New Orleans and eight elsewhere in Louisiana. They’ve raised nearly $11 million of the anticipate­d $13.8 million cost with help from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the city, federal funding and other donations.

Jeffrey Schlegelmi­lch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedne­ss at Columbia University, said systems that can operate independen­t of the power grid — often referred to as microgrids — are becoming more popular

as businesses and communitie­s address climate change by trying to reduce their carbon footprint or secure backup electricit­y.

“We’re expecting more extreme weather. We’re expecting more stress on the grid,” he said. It’s particular­ly important to have such hubs in places with high levels of chronic disease, where outages can take an outsized toll, he said: Keeping them powered up could mean fewer people in ambulances.

An Associated Press analysis found that weatherrel­ated outages doubled over the last two decades. Louisiana is one of three states experienci­ng a 50% increase in outage duration.

Pastor Neil Bernard anticipate­s helping many more people at his New Wine Christian Fellowship in the New Orleans suburb of LaPlace. The church is a designated shelter of last resort in St. John the Baptist Parish, which was hard-hit

during Ida.

The roar of generators is a common sound after a hurricane, and the parish government provided one to the church, but they are noisy, carbon monoxide fumes are dangerous and fuel can be scarce when storm damage impedes transporta­tion.

Keeping New Wine’s generator fueled and maintained was a challenge after Ida. Now the church will benefit year-round: Once the lighthouse is installed, Bernard anticipate­s saving $3,000 a month in energy bills.

Hurricanes aren’t the only extreme weather triggering interest in microgrids.

Experts say there’s growing interest in California, where utility companies sometimes preemptive­ly de-energize power lines when conditions are ripe for wildfires so that their equipment doesn’t spark a fire.

Ice and wind storms as well as tropical weather can cause blackouts in places like Baltimore, which launched a similar project in 2015.

The city has four locations fully outfitted with solar power and battery backup systems, and aims to have 30 in three years, the city’s climate and resilience planner, Aubrey Germ, said in an email.

“A number of the systems have performed well during power outages, enabling the Hubs to provide continuity of essential services such as cell phone charging, cooling, and informatio­n to residents in need of support,” Germ wrote.

CrescentCa­re lost $250,000 in medicines and vaccines in Ida’s aftermath. The New Orleans-based health care center had two generators when Hurricane Ida hit, but one failed and they couldn’t get enough fuel to run the other, said CEO Noel Twilbeck.

Now the center will serve as one of the first “lighthouse­s” in the area.

The solar panels are designed to withstand 160-mph winds, said Pierre Moses, the president of 127 Energy, which finances and develops renewable energy projects. He’s also a technical consultant to the Community Lighthouse effort.

Direct Relief, one of the donors financing the lighthouse project, didn’t aim to be an energy provider — it began funding microgrids after being asked repeatedly to pay for generators and fuel after hurricanes.

The humanitari­an aid group’s president and CEO, Thomas Tighe, sees the value now that medical records are computeriz­ed and more people need energy-dependent devices at home such as dialysis machines and oxygen.

“You’ve set things up presuming there will always be power and that presumptio­n is no longer valid in a lot of places,” he said.

 ?? REBECCA SANTANA/AP ?? Sonia St. Cyr, a New Orleans resident, sits outside the Broadmoor Community Church on July 21. The church is part of a program installing solar panels and batteries to serve communitie­s in case of extended power outages.
REBECCA SANTANA/AP Sonia St. Cyr, a New Orleans resident, sits outside the Broadmoor Community Church on July 21. The church is part of a program installing solar panels and batteries to serve communitie­s in case of extended power outages.

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