According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since 1980, extreme weather events have cost Louisiana $2.5 trillion, making Louisiana the most impacted state by billion-dollar natural disasters, totalling 341 events.
That’s why New Orleans, a city that has a 92% chance of experiencing a tropical cyclone every year, is no stranger to community-based natural disaster organizing. Announced on Thursday, the nonprofit coalition, Together New Orleans, began a new initiative: the Community Lighthouse Project.
The project aims to bring solar power systems with battery storage to centralized locations such as churches, health clinics and community centers in underserved neighborhoods to serve as a refuge in the event of a natural disaster or blackout.
According to a video by the nonprofit coalition, the Community Lighthouse Project is a strategy built by a network of 85 congregations and community institutions, each of which would have solar panels and back-up battery storage to serve as disaster response hubs, so no one would live more than a 15 minute walk from a lighthouse. The lighthouses are being funded entirely with community donations and public grants.
As the local publication Louisiana Illuminator reports, the “lighthouses” will offer access to electricity, refrigeration, shelter, and other basic needs like food and water during storms, according to Pierre Moses, who is working with Together Louisiana on the project.
Each will also offer user-friendly load management systems that allow the occupants to control the flow of power, the Illuminator reports.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), solar power improves resilience of energy systems for several reasons. For one, they’re distributed instead of centralized, meaning that individual buildings can host their own solar systems to meet some or all of their power needs.
That’s why the Community Lighthouse Project is scaling their current operations from 3 refuges to 300 across the entire Bayou State.
On top of the decentralization, the DOE says communities can combine solar with battery storage and other technologies to create a microgrid that will provide power to critical infrastructure when it’s needed. This is crucial in the wake of natural disasters, because by storing the sunlight-generated electricity, it can be discharged without the need for fuel.
Traditional diesel generators, which are the most common source of backup emergency power, solar and energy storage can deliver consistent energy for several days, even at night as a storm rages on.
In addition, as California-based company SolarLabs explains, solar is also ideal for disaster relief efforts because of its portability, making it easily transportable to remote or hard-to-reach locations.
On top of emergency shelter and power, all of solar power’s benefits extend to water treatment and purification systems, refrigeration, and powering communication systems when traditional power leaves them in the dark.
In 2021, Hurricane Ida unleashed a flurry of gas-related problems on Louisiana. As thousands of residents and centers turned on generators, impacted communities saw frightening surges in carbon monoxide poisoning and subsequent hospitalizations.
The surges weren’t only limited to Louisiana as Mississippi and several states along the east coast saw similar trends.
Despite the dangers, residents, and even export terminals, scrambled to find fuel for their generators, as stations experienced gasoline shortages, or couldn’t transport the gas because of lack of power. And even when residents did find fuel, high gas prices make storms especially costly as houses burn an average of 10-12 gallons a day.
According to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, this added up to nearly $200 a day for residents wishing to keep power in the wake of Hurricane Ida, on the low end compared to the $500/day Hurricane Laura cost generatoring residents in 2020, which with today’s gas prices would’ve been upwards of $1,000.
This doesn’t even begin to account for the environmental and health impacts of using fossil fuel generators, as the usual suspect, air pollution, contaminates the air with cancer-causing substances, that according to experts in the Associated Press, can produce “far more climate change-inducing emissions than, a natural gas power plant.”
By this hurricane season, the Community Lighthouse Project, plans to have 16 operating hubs. One lighthouse, which is almost finished, is located at a health center that lost $1.5 million worth of medication during a power outage.
According to Moses, the eventual 300 lighthouses will be placed at organizations and companies that have a proven track record of sheltering individuals during disasters, and in communities that typically don’t have the means to evacuate.