Renewable Energy to the Rescue


Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York City on October 29 affecting the East coast from Florida to Maine, having first raged through the Caribbean. In the United States alone, the storm took at least 132 lives and left 8.2 million people in 17 states without electricity. A week after the storm, 1.7 million were still without electricity in the Northeast. By February, 1,300 victims in New Jersey remained in hotels, and federal officials issued the first installment of a $51 billion emergency aid package. Hurricane season, which runs from June through November, has never been predictable, but climate experts say we can bank on more intense storms and more loss of lives and property. In Florida, we escaped Sandy with relatively minor damage. Yet we’re no strangers to natural disasters, experiencing more hurricanes than any other state. As a result, Florida has developed one of the nation’s best emergency management teams and a number of advanced disaster relief programs.

Sun Smart solar panels
Through the SunSmart program, schools across Florida designated as shelters each received a 10-kilowatt PV system. Photo: Bill Young, retired FSEC

One such program is the SunSmart Emergency Shelter school program developed by the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), a research institute of the University of Central Florida. Schools across Florida designated as shelters and chosen to participate in the SunSmart program each received a 10-kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic (PV) system designed to operate as an uninterruptible power supply for critical loads in the shelter part of the school.

But it’s not just coastal regions that can benefit from this type of emergency resource. Renewable energy can play a key role in recovery from disasters of any kind.

Powering Critical Loads at Shelters

In 2003, Florida participated in a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) program designed to promote the installation of PV on schools as a resource for teaching science and math. Initially, the Florida Energy Office teamed with FSEC and local utilities to install grid-tied PV systems from 1 to 4 kW on 48 schools statewide.

In 2010, FSEC was awarded a contract through the DOE administered American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to install PV at shelter-designated schools. Recently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has revised its standards to make shelters more disaster-resistant and comfortable for those displaced by disasters. By adding PV systems for emergency backup power, Florida has taken the process one step further. The systems are designed to withstand 150-mph winds, assuring that critical loads would be powered day and night.

According to SunSmart Program Manager Susan Schleith, “The program started as a way to raise awareness and understanding of photovoltaic technology among students, teachers and the general public, and now the PV system has moved from a demonstration project to a viable application during a power outage.”

Each PV system is a bimodal configuration consisting of a 10-kW SolarWorld array feeding Outback’s Flexware 500 inverter/charger and using a 25-kWh Sun-Xtender battery for backup power. The ground-mounted systems are integrated into the shelter part of the school to power critical loads identified by emergency organizations during and following a disaster. Typical loads are overhead lights and electrical receptacles for powering items such as radios, phone chargers and life support equipment.

solar emergency kit
Any organization can benefit from keeping a disaster kit of solar-powered devices, like a flashlight, radio, phone charger, battery charger and dc inverter, to supply emergency electricity. Many of these devices can be purchased at camping stores. Photo: Nick Waters, FSEC

As of February, 98 school shelters had operational systems, with another 10 to be funded by local utilities and installed by the end of 2013. Installing 98 systems in less than two years was an aggressive goal, and one that created a need for effective collaboration among FSEC, the system installer, FEMA and school district personnel (including the principal, facility manager, IT manager and science teachers). Some of the key challenges FSEC faced included orienting a 10-kW system to the school property’s layout, integrating separate critical loads with existing building wiring and navigating each school district’s compliance issues.

The SunSmart program is FSEC’s latest application of solar for disaster relief. It first began researching options after Hurricane Andrew devastated Dade County in 1992. In response to Andrew, FSEC partnered with Sandia National Laboratories to install PV systems at medical clinics in Dade County. It worked with the Florida Department of Transportation and Dade County to develop trailer-mounted PV-powered traffic signals, as more than 1,000 signals were being repaired in Miami. In 1995, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory joined the effort to promote solar energy for disaster relief by funding FSEC’s report, “Photovoltaic Applications for Disaster Relief,” to educate the public, government and industry on options.

Learning from Sandy

greenpeace solar truck
The solar panels of Greenpeace’s Rolling Sunlight truck was used to help locals, who were without power and heat, to charge phones and other devices. Photo: Michael Nagle/Greenpeace

Solar energy did assist in the recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy, especially for those with solar water heating and off-grid PV systems. Solar enthusiasts came to the rescue with off-grid solar assistance.

Greenpeace provided its Rolling Sunlight PV truck to power a New York City donation center and help locals power cell phones and other devices. The Louis Berger Group and SolaRover partnered to donate a mobile solar generator to support a Greenpeace gym, clinic and soup kitchen in Rockaway Park, N.Y. Midtown Community School, in Bayonne, N.J., sheltered 75 residents. A 232-kW array with two Sunny Central 125U commercial solar inverters and battery backup supplemented the school’s diesel generator during the utility power outage. Other organizations provided portable systems to power small loads such as phones, lights and TVs.

greenpeace supplies emergency power
Greenpeace deployed Rolling Sunlight after Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Bruce Cotler/Greenpeace

Solar installers from the region found little damage from wind as thousands of arrays were still attached to homes and businesses. Flooding was more often the cause of system failure, as inverters and other balance of system components were damaged.

As Hurricane Sandy demonstrates, renewable energy has a vital role to play in disaster recovery. Just as important is its role in emergency preparedness. Disaster-resistant buildings with renewable energy offer perhaps our best hope in a world experiencing ever-increasing climate extremes, whether hurricanes, droughts or wildfires.

About the Author

bill youngBill Young’s first experience with natural disasters came when, as a child in Florida, he watched from sliding doors at his family home as Hurricane Donna’s winds blew away part of the porch. After the storm, his family spent 10 days without utility power. Young’s father, an electrical engineer at Kennedy Space Center and an amateur radio operator, used an inverter connected to a car to power the refrigerator, a light and a HAM radio. The Youngs were the only people in the neighborhood with electricity, as long as Bill’s dad could find gasoline to keep the car running. This event was the beginning of Young’s lifelong fascination with electric power and radio communications.

As an engineering student at the University of Central Florida, Young met a professor who worked with the then-newly established Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC). Following graduation and several years designing solar systems for General Electric, Young joined FSEC, where his manager was interested in his research on the application of solar energy for disaster response. From this start, Young participated in FSEC’s partnerships with the U.S. Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to collect data, conduct experiments, develop equipment and conduct workshops on the application of solar energy for disaster relief. Young ( retired from his position as SunSmart program technology engineer at FSEC in January.

Bill Young’s photo: Nick Waters, FSEC

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