The churches and community groups of New Orleans have come up with their own strategy to deal with future disasters which knock out their power – one which organizers believe could make Louisiana a “world model for grid resilience and disaster response.”
The network, which will be the largest of its kind in the world when completed, aims to give residents a familiar, safe haven in their neighborhood that can provide charging and cooling stations, lights, food and other vital resources and information when the power goes out – and stays out.
On June 28th, more than 900 community members came together with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans city council members, state and federal officials to launch the Community Lighthouse Project.
The project is led by Together New Orleans, a coalition of faith and community groups. The $13.8 million project aims to install rooftop solar and backup batteries in churches and community centers so they will have the power they need when the next disaster strikes. The project has lined up $11 million in nonprofit grants and pledges of federal and city government funding so far.
They’ve identified 24 locations for Community Lighthouses across Louisiana, 16 of them in New Orleans. Every neighbourhood in New Orleans will be within 15 minutes walk of a lighthouse, and each will have enough solar and battery capacity to supply more than a week of electricity for refrigerators, cooling centers and charging for cell phones and medical devices.
The lighthouses also will be places from which volunteers can fan out across neighborhoods and help people stranded by flooding or who can’t afford to evacuate. About one in four people live in poverty in New Orleans.
Each lighthouse will have a team of volunteers who study their areas, learn who has health problems and who needs medication refrigerated or depends on electric wheelchairs for mobility, and should be able to connect with all of its neighborhood’s vulnerable people within 24 hours of an outage, says organizer Broderick Bagert.
Over the next few years, the Community Lighthouse Project envisions the creation of a community-wide network of 85 to 100 resilience hubs across Louisiana, each powered by commercial-scale, rooftop solar systems with back-up battery capacity. Construction on the first lighthouse sites is expected to begin in the second quarter of 2023, with some sites operational by the peak of the 2023 hurricane season.
Hurricane Ida knocked down all the major transmission lines connecting New Orleans to the broader grid operated by Entergy, blacking out the city, and the utility’s plans for an emergency strategy did not materialize. That helped residents realize that if anyone was going to solve the problem, it would be them.
Together New Orleans leader Antoine Barriere, senior pastor of Household of Faith Family Worship Church in New Orleans, says building resilience from the local community level up is a central part of the vision. “We’ve spent years saying, ‘When are they going to fix the levees, when are they going to set up cooling centers? We have to stop saying, ‘When are they going to?’ and start saying, ‘How are we going to?’”
“Hurricane Ida sparked something in Southeast Louisiana,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of Alliance for Affordable Energy, a community advocacy group and Together New Orleans member. The increasing availability of rooftop solar and backup batteries “is enabling dreaming, if you will, about what resilience could actually look like in our city.”
Pierre Moses, president of 127 Energy, the solar and battery project developer that’s coordinating the technical side, saw the same “sea change” in customers and community members he met after the hurricane. “Overnight, within a week, residents, laymen and grandmothers in New Orleans were starting to talk about black-start capabilities of power plants around the kitchen table,” he said.
That was in part because a handful of sites equipped with solar and batteries kept running during the blackout and that caught many people’s attention. In fact, solar and batteries can be more reliable and safer than backup generators, Moses said. During the post-Ida outage, “many generators failed because they were running for days on end” and broke down or ran out of fuel.
Community health center CrescentCare, which will be one of the community lighthouses, lost vaccines, medications and testing supplies that they couldn’t keep cool, CEO Noel Twilbeck. That was a loss that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even if generators kept working, a statewide fuel and transportation crunch made it hard to secure the diesel or gasoline to run them, Moses said. And solar power is safer. Heat exhaustion and carbon monoxide poisoning caused the majority of deaths after Hurricane Ida, just as after the rolling blackouts in Texas.
Some of the lighthouses will get smaller rooftop solar arrays, Tesla Powerwall batteries and smart electrical panels from San Francisco–based startup Span that can direct solar and battery power to critical loads in an emergency, Moses said.
Medium-sized projects will have about 60 to 80 kilowatts of solar PV and 120 kilowatt-hours of battery storage. The largest projects will have 100 to 200 kilowatts of solar and “a few hundred kilowatt-hours of storage” and will be managed through microgrid control systems that can automatically switch over when the grid goes down, maintaining a balance between critical loads and available solar and battery power.
Louisiana-based solar and energy management firm Solar Alternatives will design and install the systems, and Together New Orleans will contract with a third-party energy services provider to remotely oversee operations and provide long-term support..
Solar panels generate carbon-free power that can reduce utility bills even when the grid is up and running. Crescent Care expects that “ will save us $16,000 a year in electrical costs, covering about 12 percent of our utility needs for the clinic.” Pastor Neil Bernard’s New Wine Christian Fellowship in the New Orleans suburb of LaPlace, a designated shelter of last resort in St. John the Baptist Parish, anticipates saving $3,000 a month in energy bills once the lighthouse is installed.
A grassroots coalition turns to solar and batteries to help New Orleans cope with disasters. Canary Media, Jul. 11, 2022
‘Community Lighthouses’ powered by the sun and volunteers. Religion News, Aug. 8, 2022