In the wake of Hurricane Ida, thousands of utility workers are scrambling to bring power back on in Louisiana—and some residents in the direct path of the storm may have to wait weeks for that to happen. In New Orleans, a natural gas plant that was supposed to provide emergency power failed. But at one affordable apartment building in the city, the lights are on, because of its solar microgrid.
On top of the building—the first net-zero apartment complex in the state—450 solar panels send electricity to a battery storage system in the parking lot. Though the system needed a repair after the storm (which was delayed because roads were closed) the power started flowing again on Tuesday as the rest of the neighborhood was still dark. “It came back online, and we were able to give people almost eight hours of electricity running off the battery,” says Lauren Avioli, the director of housing development at SBP, the nonprofit behind the 50-unit building, called the St. Peter Apartments.
The building opened in early 2020, and the solar microgrid was tested within months, as Hurricane Zeta caused multiday outages last October in New Orleans. “Our battery system kicked on,” says Avioli. “When the power went out, I don’t think a lot of residents even realize that the city power grid went down. The building switched over. And then again, for winter storm Uri, the same thing happened.”
Even when the city isn’t dealing with a disaster, the system helps build resilience. Half of the apartments in the mixed-income building are prioritized for veterans; many are transitioning out of homeless shelters or recovery centers. Affordability is key, and the solar panels can help offset electricity costs. “It’s not just post-disaster emergency power,” she says. “It’s also helping people at the property save money on a blue sky day because we can use some of the energy that’s being generated by the solar panels to run the building. By doing that, we’re not pulling all of our power off the city grid. And so we’re not charging the tenants for all the kilowatts that they’re using, because, obviously, what’s coming from the solar panels is free.”
Of course, using solar energy also helps support resilience because it reduces emissions, and climate change is making hurricanes like Ida stronger and more damaging. (Entergy, the local utility, helped fund the project, though it has also been criticized for moving slowly away from fossil fuels, including pushing for a new natural gas plant in a low-income neighborhood; when some community leaders objected, it hired paid actors to testify in support of the gas plant at meetings.)
The nonprofit, which was founded after Hurricane Katrina, thinks about resilience broadly. The apartment building has managers that work to build community, so residents have a support system in place when disasters happen. During the current disaster, the managers are also helping residents connect with emergency aid. Physically, the building was designed to be resilient in storms through features like a storage tank for stormwater, permeable pavement, and bioswales, channels with plants that help reduce flooding in heavy rain. The solar panels are designed to stay on the roof in extreme winds. Meters in each apartment track energy use, so the building managers can work with residents to shrink demand.
The building was designed to be as energy-efficient as possible, and the solar panels are supposed to provide enough power for the whole building. But when the building opened during the pandemic, and many residents were stuck at home all day, the team realized that demand could outstrip supply. On a normal day, that would mean taking more energy from the grid. But right now, it means that power each day from the solar microgrid is limited. Weather is another factor; Tuesday was cloudy, and meant that the solar panels couldn’t produce as much power as they usually would. A heat wave means that residents want to use air conditioning, which also increases demand. “We’re learning every month, every hurricane, every time the battery goes on, just what variables come into play, and how long we might expect a battery to last,” says Avioli.
The nonprofit wants to install similar systems in other developments. It’s a model that should be widely replicated, Avioli says. “I think about if every public building in New Orleans had one of these, how many more people could have access to power,” she says. “We’re happy to kind of talk to anybody who’s thinking about doing this, and just want to share what we’ve learned. Ultimately, I think it’s going to help position people who typically do suffer more post disaster to be a little bit more resilient. That’s our goal.”