Louisiana is building electricity hubs to power communities after a disaster. Here’s how they work | PBS NewsHour

2023-01-13 10:46:37 By : Ms. Cecy Yan

Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.

Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.

NEW ORLEANS — For the last nine years, Luis Barahona has been using a motorized wheelchair to move from his electric bed to the porch of his home. A swimming accident nearly a decade ago left the 36-year-old with quadriplegia, largely unable to move his body from the neck down.

When Hurricane Ida hit 16 months ago, a weekslong power outage left residents without power in the middle of hot and humid summer. Barahona worried for his life.

“Having a dead phone battery is a tragedy because it’s needed for everything — for calls, for games, and to look for information,” Barahona said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “For me, I also depend on electricity for vital devices like the bed and my air conditioning, which are the most important for my chronic health condition.”

WATCH: Small Florida community aims for energy independence by harnessing the power of the sun

Electricity is “muy, muy importante,” he said, adding that he depends on it to feel less disconnected. It’s what “allows me to get out of my confinement and know what’s happening in the world.”

Luis Barahona’s mother Maria, his caretaker, stands next to her son as he watches TV from his electrical hospital bed and his motorized wheelchair nearby. Photo by Dariana Videaux Capitel/Familias Unida South Louisiana

Following Hurricane Ida, nearly 1 million people in Louisiana lost power; some residents lived without it for more than a month after the storm made landfall. The outage affected many of the city’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly and people with disabilities.

Local community organizations in New Orleans note that power outages pose a grave threat, especially for those who rely on oxygen machines, medication nebulizers, home dialysis, infusion pumps, or other medical devices that depend on a reliable power supply.

Together New Orleans, a coalition of churches and local groups that address community problems, created a plan for solar-powered microgrids, or “community lighthouses,” throughout the city.

READ MORE: How ‘solar canals’ could help California reach sustainable energy goals

Commercial-scale solar panels and a backup battery pack would power each lighthouse and act as an electricity hub following a disaster or grid failure. The solar panels on each designated lighthouse are designed to withstand 160-mph winds, those as strong as a Category 4 storm. People could also power their phones, safely store medications and recharge batteries. There will also be cooling and heating stations and light medical equipment available.

When Ida hit, Barahona left the city with friends for a few days. They soon returned because being away from home was too costly. And the neighborhood still did not have power. This was worrisome for Barahona because he has heat intolerance. It’s a health condition that makes it harder for his body to regulate its internal temperature, which could lead to life-threatening situations.

“We opened all the doors in the house, and I placed my bed in the middle of the hallway where the air could circulate,” Barahona said.

“I stayed there until the power came back on,” he added. “It was horrific.”

Broderick Bagert, lead organizer for Together New Orleans, said the group felt “impotent and powerless” as the city struggled to address basics like collecting garbage in Ida’s aftermath.

“We decided we have to start putting the responsibility on our own shoulders,” he said.”

Drone footage shows the commercial-scale solar panels atop the CrescentCare center in the Ninth Ward neighborhood, which will be served by a lighthouse. Video by Broderick Bagert/Together New Orleans

Ida was responsible for 30 deaths in Louisiana, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of those deaths, 26 were connected to the extended blackout, including those of people with power-dependent medical devices, carbon monoxide poisoning, and heat exhaustion due to lack of air conditioning.

“If you have a machine that plugs into the wall that allows you to breathe, and if no electricity Is coming into that wall, then you are facing mortal danger the minute the power goes out,” Bagert said.

The community lighthouses, which are being planned and built in 16 locations in New Orleans as well as eight spots outside the city, would be able to help the most vulnerable people in a neighborhood within 24 hours of an outage, Bagert said.

Bagert hopes the lighthouses, expected to be completed in August, will fill a gap in the city and state’s disaster response in the first few hours to 10 days after a storm. People should be within a 10-minute walk of a solar hub, Together New Orleans organizers said.

Once completed, organizers said it will be one of the nation’s largest solar resilience hubs. They eventually want to expand to about 100 electricity hubs throughout the state.

While Louisiana has made some small strides in recent years, it still ranks in the top 10 for “Least Solar Friendly States,” according to House Method, a national research firm. Louisiana ranks 41st in the nation with about 18,000 residences powered by solar, and only 0.4 percent of the state’s electricity is produced by solar, according to the firm’s data. By comparison, California is the most friendly solar state with 23.6 percent of the state’s power produced by solar and 8.5 million residences are powered by solar.

Ida toppled a transmission tower in Bridge City, Louisiana, after the hurricane made landfall in September 2021. Photo by Kathleen Flynn/Reuters

Ida, the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to hit the mainland U.S., knocked down all New Orleans’ major transmission lines connecting it to the broader power grid. The storm plunged the city into a blackout.

Eight major transmission lines failed, including one that crosses the Mississippi River and brings power to metro New Orleans. Ida toppled the city’s 400-foot tower, which has since been replaced, toppled into the river.

The nation’s aging electrical grid isn’t keeping up with the intensifying effects of climate change on extreme weather. An analysis published by the research nonprofit Climate Central in September ranked Louisiana sixth in the nation with the most power outages caused by hurricanes and other severe weather events.

An Associated Press analysis also found that weather-related outages doubled across the nation over the last two decades. Louisiana is one of three states experiencing a 50 percent increase in the duration of these outages.

A satellite image shows the power blackout in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida in 2021, which left nearly 1 million people in Louisiana without electricity. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory

CrescentCare, a community health center located in the Ninth Ward, is one of the New Orleans sites already outfitted with solar panels and a storage battery through the lighthouse project. Organizers focused on this community because it’s underserved. More than 36 percent of residents live below the poverty level, and may not be able to go without health care access for long stretches.

After Ida, the community health center lost $250,000 in medicines and vaccines as generators failed at both of its New Orleans locations. Critically, the loss of power also meant patients lacked access to certain health services, including life-saving medicines, COVID shots, electronic health records, and essential medical equipment.

CrescentCare’s former CEO, Noel Twilbeck, who oversaw the clinic’s integration of the lighthouse project, believes it will “go a long way toward alleviating such problems in the wake of future disasters.” Twibeck, who left his position in December as CEO after 33 years, said the loss and shutdown were devastating but said the clinic and neighborhood are better equipped with the new solar lighthouse.

“There was a break in access in care,” Twilbeck said, adding that all appointments had to get rescheduled amid concerns that people would lose touch with their medical provider.

“We had to make sure there were fail-safe mechanisms in place so that if part of the system goes down, there needed to be a backup plan. We’re a community resource, and if the resources aren’t operational, then we’re doing no one any good,” Twilbeck said.

The first phase of the lighthouse initiative is expected to cost $13.8 million, which has already been secured by a collection of nonprofit grants and pledges of federal and city government funding. Bagert noted that the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill and the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress last year had earmarks to fund solar projects.

Together New Orleans estimates the new panels will also reduce energy costs for clinics and religious and community centers by 25 to 50 percent.

“Through a lot of people working intently at a local level and putting something together, it feels like it will make a difference,” Bagert said.

Members of the New Wine Christian Fellowship in LaPlace, Louisiana distribute supplies during the blackout caused by Hurricane Ida in 2021. The church will be outfitted as a community lighthouse. Photo by New Wine Christian Fellowship

The community lighthouses are welcome news in New Orleans neighborhoods like Hollygrove-Dixon, a community of retirees and generational families who typically feel excluded from city services.

Brenda Lomax-Brown, 77, is a longtime community leader who has seen her neighborhood through tough times. During the Ida blackout, Lomax-Brown said she was “disturbed” that “people forgot us.” She added that elderly and medically vulnerable neighbors were left without power, food, and any way to get vital information on cooling centers or have their medical needs met.

“It’s not complicated. [The lighthouse project] will provide a basic need,” said Lomax-Brown, who is the president of the Hollygrove-Dixon Neighborhood Association. “I get upset wondering why the city couldn’t do this. We have more storms coming so fast. They are more intense each year.”

The lighthouses will bring more than just energy hardware, as each lighthouse needs a team of volunteers to study their designated areas. These volunteers would learn who has health problems, needs medication refrigerated or depends on electric wheelchairs for mobility. Lomax-Brown, who fought to get her neighborhood’s community center funded years ago, will now see the location outfitted as a lighthouse. In advance of the next power outage, volunteers will canvass the neighborhood to identify who would need more immediate care following a disaster.

“It makes communities be stronger. It makes communities realize we can make a difference,” Lomax-Brown said. “A community can be self-sufficient where we can take care of our own.”

The New Wine Christian Fellowship church in LaPlace, Louisiana, will house the second community lighthouse in St. John the Baptist Parish. It’s an area that has not fully recovered from the powerful storm. More than three of every four homes — 82 percent — were damaged. More than 17,000 residents in the New Orleans suburb were still without power two weeks after the storm. Now the church, which is already considered a shelter of last resort by residents, will be able to power up right after a storm.

“It can be unbearable.” Pastor Neil Bernard said, “when you saw our whole infrastructure come to a halt because of a lack of power following the storm.”

In addition to the savings from solar panels, Bernard said, local electrical grids like the lighthouses will help replace generators that produce deadly carbon monoxide and are costly due to fuel shortages after a hurricane. The church already has an established team of volunteers.

“We can’t always control the weather or the fact that we are having an increase in major storms,” Bernard said. “Eventually, the government won’t be able to take care of or keep up with that kind of loss. So we have to be able to plan for these kinds of things.”

As the first solar community lighthouses come online before the most active part of the 2023 hurricane season, organizations like CrescentCare believe lives will be saved during the next catastrophic outage.

Twilbeck said while the lighthouse project may not be a cure-all for all the issues that arise in the next weather event, “it does feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Left: Community health center CrescentCare is one of the sites already outfitted with solar panels under the “Community Lighthouse” project. The facility lost $250,000 in medicine and vaccines when power failed in New Orleans following Hurricane Ida in 2021. Photo provided by CrescentCare

By Daniel Cohan, The Conversation

Roby Chavez is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of New Orleans. @RobyChavez_504

Support Provided By: Learn more

Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.

Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.

© 1996 - 2023 NewsHour Productions LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Subscribe to ‘Here's the Deal,’ our politics newsletter

Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.

Learn more about Friends of the NewsHour.

Support for NewsHour Provided By