The Footprint Project is here in Louisiana deploying solar and battery storage for some of the hardest-hit areas impacted by Hurricane Ida. I spoke with Will Heegaard, Founder, Operations Director, and CEO of Footprint Project on the phone this weekend. This interview is a followup to an article I wrote previously about the great work that the team of engineers is doing in my state.
Will gave me a recap of some of the work Footprint has been doing in New Orleans and the surrounding area.
“We’ve been deploying small to large mobile or portable solar generator systems to support Ida response and recovery.”
Originally, the team was going to be participating in a festival that got canceled, and Will explained that they were tracking the storm but didn’t know exactly where it would hit. He added that there’s at least one bad one each year and that Footprint is still small but has been hoping to help in these types of disasters.
“The more we can float these various types of mobile solar generator equipment in a fun and non-fun event, then the more we can try to grow the fleets or cache of regional equipment that’s available to be activated for power outage events.”
In other words, they are exposing the general public to an alternative power source that is renewable and using it in disaster to show that solar can save lives. This is a great way to spread awareness about renewables and show how these units can be deployed, especially in mobile situations such as festivals or, sadly, disasters.
Bringing Solar To A Fossil Fuel Dependent State During A Disaster That Sparked Fuel Shortages
With my state being a fossil fuel supporting state, I wanted to know what the core response was to the team as they educated those affected by the storm about solar. We all know about gas and diesel generators, but many people don’t even know about solar generators. I write for CleanTechnica and I didn’t even know about their existence until someone told me. Education and awareness are critical, and we need more of both.
I asked Will what the initial responses were to the solar generators. Will pointed out that free electrons are free electrons, and if people can plug in without the need for fuel, then this is a good thing. This is just the second week of recovery and we are still having fuel shortages. Also, there are still people without power, and they are using fuel for generators. Lines at gas stations have been long, with wait times of over an hour, and for those in the hardest-hit areas, they have to drive 2–3 hours to the nearest gas station, which then may or may not have fuel.
Captain Richard Birk, a retired firefighter and paramedic who served with Las Vegas Fire and Rescue for 30 years, is an advisor for the Footprint Project. He told me that he volunteers because he believed this is well worth his time. He wanted to add an answer to my question about how the people of Louisiana, an oil & gas state, were thinking when Footprint Project deployed the solar generators.
“When you put these electrons made from the sun, what are they thinking? That’s a great question. And from my experience of emergency management and serving communities in trouble on a daily basis for the 911 system, what I found is the visceral experience is the most game-changing experience you can have. …
“They’re used to being without power. They’re used to the power lines coming down. That’s not a surprise. Every one of the people we’ve talked to said ‘yeah, the power lines come down with every storm.’ … They’re used to being without power and the gasoline shortages and the diesel shortages. … They’re used to sitting in the dark with nothing.
“They’re used to being short of breath because all the thousands of people who live on little nebulizers and O2 machines sit in the dark. Somebody scrambles maybe a few generators together. They usually only last during the day or the night hours because they’ve gotta turn it off. They’re used to being uncomfortable.
“And what’s happening is that we can show them a different way. What we’re looking at is, when we put these systems in, is that they’re going to run 24 hours a day. You can plug your medical device in and you now have oxygen. You can plug your nebulizer in and now you don’t have to have an asthma attack. You can plug your C-Pap machine in and you can sleep at night. That is a visceral experience, and that’s how you’re going to change this.
“It’s a matter of life and death. What the Footprint Project is doing is not just putting in solar and batteries and a renewable energy source, but what they’re doing is they’re saving lives. Just like I was trained to do. But they’re using renewable energy to save those lives.”
With Solar, There Is No Risk Of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Being able to plug your phone into a solar-powered generator without worrying about fuel, spending $200 or more on fuel, and without the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is definitely a bonus.
“There’s always going to be an awareness issue with adoption, or how to make sure people understand the capabilities of a solar generator versus a gas generator.”
He explained that for gas generators, everyone knows how to use them, but for solar, there’s a lot that most don’t know.
“The percentage of the general population that knows what a kilowatt-hour actually means based on their cell phone or their fridge or whatever is next to zero. Very few people have a true understanding of what a kilowatt-hour is for their practical life.
“And with a gas generator, they really don’t need to know what a kilowatt-hour is. They just need to know how to find the gas, when to fill the generator with gas, and hopefully how to not die while filling it with gas or not die from the carbon monoxide.”
Sadly, we do have deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning because people put the generators on inside their homes. This was an issue with Laura last year and has been an issue with Ida as well despite the constant reminders from our local and state leaders not to do so.
One of the team members, Jamie, pointed out that they were asked about carbon monoxide when they deployed the batteries. Furthermore, some don’t even have generators. Will added:
“We were dropping off these small little portable batteries to charge phones and little headlights at this home where there were 20–30 elderly folks. The home has been without power for a week and is still without power and mold is spreading through the building, which is unacceptable and tragic.
“We were passing out these battery packs to charge their lights and their phones so they were not just sitting in the dark after the sun goes down. Particularly for folks that can’t afford a generator — you would think people can afford it, right? There’s a huge segment of our population that can’t. When the lights go out, they’re just in the dark. It’s just the reality.”
No Communications; Devastation All Around
I shared my story of riding out Ida with Will. The team didn’t realize I was also in an impacted area, but that fortunately, Baton Rouge was spared the worst of the damage. We still lost power, and yes, I was fighting for my life and those of my pets in the extreme heat that invaded my home, but I still had a home, running clean water, and a way to stay cool.
I explained that there was no communication and most of my calls and texts weren’t going through after the storm hit. Will told me that it’s still like that in some of the hardest-hit areas.
“You go down there and there’s nothing.
“The first couple of days we got here, we helped Imagine Waterworks and set up that portable system and then by the morning or that night, the power came back on. It’s kind of a game where, particularly in the urban areas — I’m just blown away that this one elderly folks’ home is still without power, because the area around it has power. So, we’re trying to figure out why, but most of the city area has power.
“So, the real question is how far out can we get this equipment so it has the most benefit over the next two to four weeks — potentially six weeks in really hard-to-reach areas.”
He explained that the team was looking for public and community spaces that needed power. If you have any, chime in.
When looking for areas to help, the hardest-hit areas will be on the east side of the storm — which is always heavily damaged. Will shared with me that some of the areas he’d been in, such as Houma, were completely destroyed.
“Houma must have been near the eye because the place is devastated.
“New Orleans has gotten damaged but if you go south of 90 outside the city and places like Boutte, it just gets worse and worse the further southeast you go.
“For us, it’s about how to effectively dispatch the equipment and match-make between a site energy usage portfolio and the equipment that’s available to deploy. I wouldn’t say that we’re experts at it — we learned as we go — but we’re getting better. Every disaster we deploy to, we get better.”
How You Can Help Footprint Project
In the previous article, I included a link to the GoFundMe campaign that was set up, but for more info, Will has three categories that the team divided their needs into.
“I break down the types of support into three categories. We need cash from people that can get cash. Cash is the most effective way to respond to disasters. You can spend the money, locally and around the communities that have been hit and kickstart the economic recovery.
“All the data shows that cash is the most effective way to help the responders who are deploying and help the community at the same time.
“If you can give cash to the communities and the responders, it’s always the most efficient and most effective.”
“We spend a lot of our cash on batteries. We can’t do our work without usually lithium-iron-phosphate batteries (LFP batteries). These are 90% of what we’re doing. You can’t build an off-grid solar or set up an off-grid solar generator without a battery, and some of these batteries are heavy and hard to transport.
“We’re trying to deploy these things in the safest way possible. We’ll deploy anything that’s not a gas or diesel generator, but we prefer if we can set up lithium or LFP-based solar panels and microgrids.”
Other types of equipment they also need are inverters, wiring, cabeling MC4s, crimpers, power tools, and all the things a typical installer would bring to a site.
“We always need people. We’re still trying to build up our training and our volunteer base. There’s just not a lot. We’re trying to partner with industry folks who have the human resources to deploy volunteers who already know how to MC4 crimp or already know how to assess a site for battery storage sizing.
“That is still a small industry and it’s hard to find electricians around here. You’re not going to find one around here for months now, much less one with knowledge of off-grid solar installations. We’re trying to build that volunteer base across the country so that we can deploy people closer to the storm that knows what a 40kWh solar system can do and what brand they are working with, such as Tesla. We need people who know how to do this work, and this is in very short supply.”
Final Thoughts From Will
This industry, he pointed out, is usually pretty technical, but Will wanted to emphasize the importance of looking beyond the technical details and helping one to understand that this technology is out here saving lives.
“The real story is about how these free electrons and the ripple effect they have throughout the community. When there’s a safe, quiet self-sustaining source of power deployed to a community that just got rocked — just lost everything — aside from the quantitative benefits of not having to get fuel or not being exposed to carbon monoxide that is important, I think the qualitative effects rolling in a vision of the future for people who just lost everything is so understated.
“I’m trying to communicate this with people because there’s just nothing more powerful than bringing a version of hope for that community and showing them that they can build back better, stronger, and greener. This is why we do the work.”