Lauren Flanagan, executive chair and co-founder of Sesame Solar, shares insights around the use of DERs and nanogrids as part of a disaster response to extreme weather and power outages.
Distributed energy resource systems (DERs) are the future of sustainable, resilient, clean electricity and are a perfect fit for the humanitarian effort needed during and after natural and manmade disasters. Designing DERs for disaster response requires a complete solution that can be easily transported and rapidly deployed. They must be easy to use with minimal training and maintenance required to enable large organizations and first responders to quickly provide power, water, communications, medical and recovery assistance to those in need after extreme weather events. Disaster response DERs must be rugged to withstand austere conditions and have an extended life cycle to provide affordable power.
The latest report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information found the US sustained 18 extreme weather disasters of at least $1 billion in 2021 so far, and 2021 is on track to shatter the previous annual record of 22 events in 2020. As these natural forces become more frequent and destructive because of climate change, the resulting catastrophic events have a direct impact on millions of Americans each year.
Weather events are placing more people into positions without basic communications and medical care for longer. As the more powerful and frequent storms of the past decade have demonstrated, a day without power is a nuisance, but a week or longer without power, water and communications is a humanitarian crisis. As the reach to support those affected by natural disasters broadens, it is imperative that large communications and utility companies work with federal and local government agencies to help support those in need.
Technology is now available that helps large organizations and first responders during extreme weather and power outages. These systems are generally comprised of a mobile command center office with interior and exterior work spaces, satellite phone, Wi-Fi connectivity, optional mesh network, water filtration, refrigeration for medical supplies, and export power for devices, emergency equipment and EV charging. They are often powered by technologies like a retractable solar array with onboard battery storage and integrated electronics, and an integrated hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen storage to provide additional energy autonomy without the use of fossil fuels.
Disaster response DERs have already had an impact in the Caribbean and with the recent storms in Louisiana. Hurricane Ida continues to leave thousands without power. Sesame Solar in collaboration with Alpha Technologies, an EnerSys company, provided its broadband customer, Comcast, with mobile, solar-powered nanogrids comprised of a recovery office, export power for devices, and sufficient power to charge toilet and shower trailers for those affected by the storm. Additionally, after Hurricane Maria hit Dominica in 2018, severely damaging its already delicate grid infrastructure, Sesame Solar in collaboration with Direct Relief, the ITUC, Alpha/EnerSys and SimpliPhi Power, built disaster recovery nanogrids for Dominica’s Ministry of Public Health. These nanogrids support the largest hospital and a small clinic in a remote area of the island by providing ongoing renewable and resilient backup power and key resources.
Currently, the most common sources of power and recovery assistance after natural disasters are diesel generators and diesel-powered trailers and offices, which compound the environmental damage to air and water and increase noise pollution. Replacing these generators with clean solar and hydrogen-powered nanogrids reduces environmental damage, increases energy resiliency and eliminates the logistical challenges of hauling diesel over oftentimes impassable roads.
Some cities, utility companies, hospitals and universities have already embraced microgrid technology to build more resilient electric systems to protect their people, research and investments. However, large microgrids are vulnerable to damage during extreme weather events. DERs are a complementary and necessary adjunct to microgrids, providing mobile and resilient power and key resources when and where needed. As extreme weather becomes more common and the impacts on infrastructure, the economy and community livelihood grow, there is an urgent need to deploy disaster recovery DERs at scale around the country in advance of wildfire, tornado, flood and hurricane seasons and as backup power during grid outages supporting rapid response to natural and manmade disasters. This is both a national security and infrastructure imperative for the United States.
Lauren Flanagan is the executive chair and co-founder of Sesame Solar where she leads strategic initiatives.