Rows of solar modules generate electricity at UL-Lafayette’s Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing (PART) Lab on Aug. 9, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
A coalition of churches and organizations across Louisiana are building hundreds of solar-powered microgrids that will give communities a place of refuge during natural disasters and other blackouts.
The nonprofit coalition Together Louisiana presented details of the plan, dubbed the Community Lighthouse Project, at Thursday’s meeting of the Louisiana Public Service Commission (LPSC). Its members are installing solar power systems with battery storage at centralized locations such as churches, health clinics and community centers in underserved neighborhoods.
Pierre Moses, who is working with Together Louisiana on the project, told commissioners the “lighthouses” serve as places of refuge for nearby residents to access electricity, refrigeration, shelter and other basic needs during storms and other disasters. Each features user-friendly load management systems that allow the occupants to control the flow of power.
Unlike fossil fuel backup generators that aren’t designed for continuous use over several days and rely on fuels that are often unavailable during disasters, the solar-powered lighthouses are able to provide electricity virtually indefinitely, according to Moses. The load management systems allow the lighthouses to disconnect from the main power grid and go into backup mode, so users can regulate power to non-essential devices on cloudy days and ensure the batteries maintain adequate charge levels for nighttime use, he said.
The solar power systems are also used as primary energy sources at all times — not just during blackouts. This allows the facilities to save money on energy consumption year-round.
Together Louisiana came up with the idea for the project after so many backup generators broke down or ran out of fuel after Hurricane Ida. The lighthouse projects are funded through donations and public grants.
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Theron Jackson, a Shreveport pastor, told the commissioners that many in his community see gas generators as unsafe because of the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning that claims lives almost every hurricane season.
So far, the project has three lighthouses finished and two more currently under construction. The group plans to have at least 16 operating by this hurricane season with a long-term goal of about 300 across the state. Its ultimate vision would have a lighthouse within 15 minutes of those most in need of shelter.
One lighthouse that is nearly complete is Crescent Care, a federally-funded health center in New Orleans. Crescent Care executive Reginald Vicks told the commission his clinic embraced the Lighthouse Project after losing $1.5 million worth of medication during a power outage.
“Our participation in this project is essential to ensure that during a hurricane or a significant power outage…[we] keep our clinics and our operations going during a disaster,” Vicks said.
The lighthouses are placed in communities that typically don’t have the means to evacuate during storms, and the organizations and companies selected to serve as lighthouses already have a proven track record of sheltering residents during a disaster, Moses said.
Commissioner Craig Greene, R-Baton Rouge, and most of the other commissioners lauded the Community Lighthouse Project as a novel solution to Louisiana’s fragile energy grid.
“The people closest to the problem are usually the ones that come up with the best solutions,” Greene said.
Commissioner Foster Campbell, D-Bossier City, asked how soon his constituents could get a lighthouse in Ouachita Parish.
Together Louisiana’s Erin Hansen said the coalition wants the Public Service Commission to require microgrid models such as community lighthouses in Entergy Louisiana’s grid resiliency plan that the commission is currently reviewing.
“Entergy’s resiliency plan is the same it was several years ago,” she said. “There’s nothing really innovative. There’s nothing new.”
Commissioner Mike Francis, R-Crowley, said the project might fit into what the commission already approved for Entergy’s backup power plan, dubbed “Power Through.”
Under the Power Through program, Entergy installs natural gas backup generators at commercial locations such as Walmart stores to serve as microgrids during an outage. However, the cost of the generators falls mostly onto Entergy’s ratepayers and the businesses.
Francis founded a 44-year-old oilfield services and equipment business.
Correction: The Crescent Care lighthouse is funded entirely through donations, but the rest are funded through private donations and public grants. A previous version of this article did not mention the grants.
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