How solar power can help neighbourhoods survive the next storm after Hurricane Ida

·10-min read
Utility poles and transmission lines collapsed across south Louisiana during Hurricane Ida, stranding thousands of residents without power for days or weeks. (Getty Images)
Utility poles and transmission lines collapsed across south Louisiana during Hurricane Ida, stranding thousands of residents without power for days or weeks. (Getty Images)

A downpour in Montegut, Louisiana covered the roads leading into outlying areas surrounded by lakes and bayous in lower Terrebonne Parish, roughly 70 miles from New Orleans and separated by eroding wetlands and waterways from the Gulf of Mexico.

On 21 September, a truck pulled a trailer with Louis Michot and a band – powered by a solar-powered generator – playing traditional Cajun music while delivering meals to Montegut residents still living without power nearly one month after Hurricane Ida devastated the region.

Power wasn’t restored to most buildings in the area that survived until the end of September.

“These communities that got hit by Ida are just so remote and take so long to get people resources – one way in and one way out, in many of them,” Mr Michot told The Independent. “If they had some solar-powered battery backup systems, it would’ve gone a long, long way.”

In New Orleans, which saw far less devastation from Ida than the parishes to its south, power outages lasted nearly two weeks after the storm made landfall on 29 August. Thousands of residents were ordered to shelter in place as the storm approached.

At least nine people in New Orleans died from “excessive heat during an extended power outage,” while two others died from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used to power their homes in sweltering conditions, according to the Orleans Parish coroner’s office. Five New Orleans residents living in senior living apartments without power died in Ida’s aftermath.

Some households still have not had trash pickup since before the storm, forcing residents to haul garbage to a temporary dump, or contend with bags of rotting trash on the curb after tossing out the contents of their refrigerators.

All eight electricity transmission lines connected to a multi-state system that services the region collapsed, cutting New Orleans off to power, while the local distribution system saw roughly twice as much damage as during any previous storm, according to officials with Entergy Corp, the parent company to Entergy Louisiana and Entergy New Orleans, which service the state.

A solar power system at Devin De Wulf’s home in the Bywater neighbourhood was able to power a neighbour’s oxygen machine and another neighbour’s refrigerator. His porch turned into a phone-charging station.

“I was looking at it initially as, ‘This is for my family,’” he told The Independent. “But what actually happened is it made my immediate neighbourhood more resilient by having this infrastructure in my house.”

Last year, Mr De Wulf – founder of Mardi Gras parading organisation Krewe of Red Beans – helped launch Feed the Second Line, providing groceries, paying gigs and other essentials to New Orleans culture workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Ida’s wake, Feed the Second Line partnered with Glass Half Full for Get Lit, Stay Lit, a campaign to turn restaurants into critically needed power hubs during outages – ice machines, kitchens and outlets can keep running on every block or in every neighbourhood, relying on a largely off-the-grid solar power system.

Last month, Mr Michot of the Grammy Award-winning Lost Bayou Ramblers revived his Cultural Research Institute of Acadiana – launched as a heritage seed library project and sustainability initiative – to open the Louisiana Solar Fund, extending his band’s mission to elevate the impacts of the climate crisis along the coast to help it prepare for the next potentially life-altering storm.

“The whole conversation about land loss and everything has been on the forefront of so many people’s minds, but Hurricane Ida really, actually showed how vulnerable people are,” he told The Independent.

Entergy is now facing renewed scrutiny in the aftermath of the storm, which exposed lingering issues that residents and regulators have criticised in the wake of other storms and outages, including the company’s insufficient efforts to strengthen the grid, and a reluctance to move to renewable sources in the midst of a growing climate crisis that threatens to displace thousands of people in south Louisiana.

“Losing your land, sinking in the ocean and all that, that’s a visible symptom – these places are actually sinking,” Mr Michot said. “It really exposed the true condition of these communities, how much they were actually hanging on. … As a musician, I don’t have the perfect design to bring people houses, I don’t have the money to bring them all this stuff, but we’re trying to do a little part to bring some awareness and hopefully bring some funding that way.”

Rooftops across southern Louisiana are once again covered in blue tarps after Ida’s winds – topping 200mph in some areas – roared through the state and shredded homes and structures across several parishes.

Stunningly, homes with solar panels mounted on their rooftops appeared to help weigh them down and keep them intact. Not only were roofs spared, the sun’s energy generated enough power to keep their respective batteries humming for some appliances through days-long outages.

There are roughly 19,000 homes in the state equipped with solar panels – they are not cheap, and neither are the batteries to store the power they generate.

Get Lit, Stay Lit estimates a solar panel system and two Tesla batteries – enough to power one restaurant – would cost $40,000 to $60,000.

Mr De Wulf’s home has 24 solar panels and two $10,000 batteries.

His wife is an emergency room physician, and the couple knew the likelihood that they could evacuate ahead of a storm was slim. After Ida knocked out power to the city, “our battery and solar panels worked like a charm,” he said.

“At the same time as all this was going on, I’m getting phone calls from restaurants saying, ‘We have to get rid of stuff in a walk-in freezer,’” he said.

“If we concentrate on these restaurants, really heavily concentrate in [areas with] high rates of poverty, that’s where people will be after a hurricane,” he said. “It would essentially make it the last time we do this.”

New Orleans residents created generator-powered charging stations after Hurricane Ida knocked out electricity to the city for nearly two weeks. (REUTERS)
New Orleans residents created generator-powered charging stations after Hurricane Ida knocked out electricity to the city for nearly two weeks. (REUTERS)

The state used to maintain a fairly generous tax credit programme, covering up to 50 per cent of the first $25,000 spent on a system, which combined with a 30 per cent federal credit helped boost a once-booming business with a spike in solar purchases in the state in the late 2000s.

In 2015, the state legislature ended the tax credit programme.

Solar systems “should be subsidized, but it’s not really about being an environmentalist, it’s actually about hurricane preparedness,” said Mr De Wulf, arguing that local, state and federal governments spend billions of dollars on emergency response and repairs in a storm’s aftermath, only to cycle through another disaster.

Mr Michot, while spending a sleepless night quarantined in his studio after potential exposure to coronavirus from a gig in Denver, scrolled through Twitter as Ida struck and read countless posts from people stuck in their homes in LaPlace, crying out for help as floodwaters forced them into attics.

The next night, Mr Michot and a group of friends launched a fundraiser to deliver supplies to hard-hit communities.

“I think we’re all just here taking it day by day and the end goal of course would be to have everyone live more sustainability and less dependent on fossil fuels, because they are part of the source of climate change, and climate change is affecting Louisiana so, so hard,” he said.

With Hurricane Ida’s widespread impacts, and the growing ease of social media to organise and bring attention to them, issues of sustainability and mutual aid organising have reached a critical mass across the state.

The storm has propelled once-marginal ideas about community-directed and publicly run utilities and sanitation into statewide debates. Residents are interrogating New Orleans’ contracts with private garbage companies. Entergy’s power monopoly now is the subject of a probe from the New Orleans City Council.

A network of mutual aid groups and local organising and fundraising efforts have effectively subsidised a lack of government investment in critical infrastructure and emergency response. After building out networks to deliver aid during the pandemic, mutual aid organisers were able to get on the ground before the storm arrived.

“Most of the help for these people is coming from other people,” Mr Michot said. “Many of them don’t have much to give, but they’re giving their time and their ability to crowdsource, but really that’s gonna need a change from on top, and a change towards more sustainable living methods, and for the norm to be people to have microgrids, solar microgrids, that will not leave them in the dark when disaster does hit.”

Solar-powered community hubs may be a lifeline in the aftermath of future storms, but the state will need to continue long-running coastal restoration projects along Louisiana’s coastline and efforts to relocate residents and strengthen existing homes as the likelihood of more-intense hurricanes increases.

If rates of sea level rise exceed 6 to 9 millimetres per year, the state’s remaining wetlands could be overwhelmed by ocean water within 50 years, according to Tulane University’s Torbjörn Törnqvist, who authored a 2020 study finding that the submersion of the state’s coastline is “probably inevitable”.

“There is definitely hope that if we use the technologies we have as far as land rebuilding and sediment diversion, we can make a difference and continue to protect our coastline, but I’m sure Ida put those projects many steps back,” Mr Michot said.

“The bottom line being that we have to use the resources we do have and the technologies we do have to protect our coastline, and it’s going to get worse and worse, and it affects all walks of life from seafood production to Indigenous communities,” he said.

The New Orleans City Council issued a legal mandate in May that requires all of Entergy’s electricity supplied to the city to come from sources that do not aggravate the climate crisis by 2040. By 2050, Entergy must entirely eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels.

But the state is firmly in the grip of an oil and gas industry that employs thousands of residents, with infrastructure that has carved shipping lanes and man-made canals into fragile wetlands that offer an eroding protective barrier from more-powerful storms.

Industry lobbyists and top brass are a powerful force in the state’s legislature in Baton Rouge. A seven-parish stretch of the state dotted by chemical plants and refineries along the Mississippi River corridor has been labelled Cancer Alley – seven of the top 10 US Census tracts with the highest cancer risks are in Louisiana, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A symbiotic relationship has developed: oil jobs among low-income communities supply labour for an industry feeding a climate crisis and eroding vital lands along the Gulf of Mexico, which now encroaches into the bayou towns and cities where those workers live.

“Of course it’s an uphill battle,” Mr Michot said. “We’re in a state and country that is politically run by oil and gas. Solar is continuing every year to become cheaper and more efficient. We can’t sit around and wait while climate change batters our community.”

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