Solar-Powered, Volunteer-Powered ‘Community Lighthouses’

LaPLACE, La. (AP) — Enthusiastic church volunteer Sonia St. Cyr lost something she treasures during the power outage caused by Hurricane Ida: her independence, which allowed her the electric wheelchair she deftly steers on the bumpy sidewalks of the city.

“After Ida I was confined to the house,” said St. Cyr, who has multiple sclerosis. He did the best he could to conserve energy in his wheelchair, going by himself to the end of his block or sitting on his own porch after the storm made landfall last August 29.

It was another 10 days before every habitable house in New Orleans had electricity again. With the lights out and nothing open in his New Orleans neighborhood of Broadmoor, “it wasn’t fun.”

The launch of a project in southeastern Louisiana aims to help people like St. Cyr, who are especially vulnerable during prolonged power outages, as warmer weather leads to more extreme weather, including bigger, wetter hurricanes. .

Equipped with solar panels on the roof and a battery pack to store energy, “community lighthouses” can serve as electricity hubs after a disaster, allowing neighbors to recharge batteries, power phones or store energy-sensitive medications. temperature.

They are being sponsored by Together New Orleans, a nonpartisan network of churches and groups trying to solve community problems.

Organizer Broderick Bagert said they felt “helpless and helpless” as the city struggled to provide basic services like garbage collection after Ida. They realized that local governments could not handle everything alone.

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

More than just power hardware, each lighthouse needs a team of volunteers to survey their areas, learning who has health issues and who needs refrigerated medication or relies on electric wheelchairs to get around. While people of means can evacuate before a hurricane, about one in four people live in poverty in New Orleans, and not everyone can afford to flee. Hurricanes are also forming faster due to climate change, making it more likely that people will be trapped in a disaster zone.

Each beacon should be able to connect with all vulnerable people in its neighborhood within 24 hours of an outage, Bagert said.

“It’s not just 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,” said the Rev. JC Richardson, pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church, during an event to announce one of the locations.

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

Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said systems that can operate independently of the power grid, often called microgrids, are becoming more popular as businesses and communities tackle the climate change trying to reduce its carbon footprint. or secure backup electricity.

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

An Associated Press analysis found that weather-related blackouts have doubled in the past two decades. Louisiana is one of three states experiencing a 50% increase in the duration of outages.

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 hit hard during Ida.

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

Keeping New Wine’s generator powered 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 on energy bills.

Hurricanes are not the only extreme weather events sparking interest in microgrids. Experts say there is growing interest in California, where utilities sometimes preemptively de-energizes power lines when conditions are ripe for wildfires so your team doesn’t start 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 equipped with solar power and battery backup systems, and aspires to have 30 in three years, the city’s climate and resiliency planner, Aubrey Germ, in an email.

“Several of the systems have performed well during power outages, allowing 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 on medications and vaccines after Ida. The New Orleans-based health care facility had two generators when Hurricane Ida hit, but one failed and they couldn’t get enough fuel to run the other, CEO Noel Twilbeck said.

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, president of 127 Energy, which finances and develops renewable energy projects. He is also a technical consultant for the Community Lighthouse effort.

Direct Relief, one of the donors funding the lighthouse project, didn’t claim to be an energy provider: It started funding microgrids after being repeatedly asked to pay for generators and fuel after the hurricanes.

The president and chief executive of the humanitarian aid group, Thomas Tighe, sees the value now that medical records are computerized and more people need devices that rely on energy at home, such as dialysis and oxygen machines.

“You have set things up with the assumption that there will always be power and that assumption is no longer valid in many places,” he said.

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