LAPLUS, Los Angeles (AFP) – Enthusiastic church volunteer Sonia Saint-Cyr lost something she valued during a power outage caused by Hurricane Ida – her independence, granted by an electric wheelchair that expertly maneuvered over rugged city sidewalks.
“After Ida I was well at home,” said Saint Cyr, who has MS. She did her best to conserve energy in her wheelchair, only going to the end of her building or sitting on her balcony after the storm made landfall last August 29.
It took another 10 days before all the habitable homes in New Orleans had electricity again. With the lights out and nothing open in New Orleans’ Broadmoor neighborhood, “it wasn’t fun.”
A project being launched in southeastern Louisiana aims to help people like St. Cyr’s who are especially vulnerable during extended power outages because a warmer climate results in harsher weather including larger and wetter tornadoes.
Equipped with rooftop solar panels and a battery pack to store energy, “community beacons” could serve as electric hubs after a disaster, allowing neighbors to recharge batteries, run phones or store temperature-sensitive medicines.
They are sponsored by Together New Orleans, a nonpartisan network of churches and groups that try to solve community problems.
Organizer Broderick Bagert said they felt “helpless and powerless” as the city struggles to deliver on basics like garbage collection in Ida’s wake. They realized that local governments cannot handle everything on their own.
“You could spend a lot of time saying… ‘Why wouldn’t they?'” said Bagert. “But you start to realize that the real question is, ‘Why not?”
More than just power equipment, each beacon needs a team of volunteers to study their areas, figure out who has health issues and who needs refrigerated medication or relies on electric wheelchairs to get around. While people with the means can evacuate before a hurricane strikes, 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, which increases the likelihood that people will find themselves stuck in a disaster zone.
Bagert said each beacon should be able to contact all at-risk people in its neighborhood within 24 hours of the outage.
“This is not all about batteries and solar panels. There are some other batteries and solar panels that were made by God’s hand. Rev. JC Richardson, pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church, said during an event announced for one of the sites.
The pilot phase anticipates 24 locations – 16 in New Orleans and eight more in Louisiana. They have raised nearly $11 million of the projected cost of $13.8 million with help from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the city, federal funding and other donations.
Systems that can operate independently of the power grid — often referred to as microgrids — are becoming more common as businesses and communities deal with climate change by trying to reduce their carbon footprint, said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. Or secure backup electricity.
“We are expecting more severe weather. We are expecting more stress on the grid,” he said. It is especially important to have such hubs in places with high levels of chronic disease, where blackouts can take a heavy toll: Continued operation to reduce the number of people in ambulances.
An Associated Press analysis found that weather-related outages have doubled over the past two decades. Louisiana is one of three states experiencing a 50% increase in outage duration.
Reverend Neil Bernard expects to help many people with the New Wayne Christian Fellowship in the New Orleans suburb of Laplace. The church is a sanctuary dedicated to the last sanctuary in the parish of St. John the Baptist, which was badly damaged during the Ida.
The roar of generators is a common sound after a hurricane, and the parish government provided one to the church, but it’s noisy, carbon monoxide fumes are dangerous and fuel can be scarce when storm damage impedes transportation.
Maintaining and maintaining the new fuel generator was a challenge after Ida. Now the church will benefit year-round: Once the lighthouse is installed, Bernard expects to save $3,000 per month in energy bills.
Hurricanes aren’t the only severe weather that sparks interest in small grids. Experts say there is a growing interest in California, where utility companies sometimes proactively de-energize power lines when conditions are ripe for wildfires so that their equipment doesn’t start a fire.
Ice and wind storms as well as tropical weather can cause power outages in places like Baltimore, which launched a similar project in 2015. The city has four sites fully equipped with solar and battery backup systems, and aims to get 30 in three years, the climate planner said. and Resilience in the City, Aubrey Jerme, in an email.
“A number of systems have performed well during the power outages, enabling hubs to provide continuity of essential services such as cell phone charging, cooling and information to populations in need of support,” Jerem wrote.
CrescentCare lost $250,000 in drugs and vaccines in the wake of IDA. CEO Noel Toelbeck said a New Orleans health care center had two generators when Hurricane Ida hit, but one failed and couldn’t get enough fuel to power the other.
Now, the center will serve as one of the first “lighthouses” in the area.
The solar panels are designed to withstand winds of up to 160 miles per hour, said Pierre Moses, president of 127 Energy, which funds and develops renewable energy projects. He is also a technical advisor to Beacon Community efforts.
Direct Relief, one of the donors that funded the beacon project, didn’t aim to be an energy provider — it started funding small networks after they were repeatedly asked to pay for generators and fuel after hurricanes.
Humanitarian Aid Group President and CEO Thomas Tighe sees the value now that medical records are computerized and more people need energy-reliant devices at home like dialysis machines and oxygen.
“I set things up with the assumption that there will always be strength and that assumption is no longer valid in many places,” he said.
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