The sun always rises: Harnessing solar to power through the next disaster aftermath.

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Pastor Antoine Barriere of Household of Faith Church on Monday, July 3, 2023 in front of the solar panels installed on the roof of the New Orleans East Church. (Photo by Chris Granger; Times-Picayune)

Louisiana’s solar industry took flight about a decade ago, but it has lagged behind other states when it comes to capacity — ranking last among southeastern states and 38th nationally in the number of megawatts installed, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Still, more than 30,000 Louisiana homes have installed panels, and the state ranks in the top 15 for projected solar growth over the next five years. Beyond savings on energy bills, Louisiana’s disaster-weary community leaders are recognizing solar’s potential as a survival tool during extended blackouts.

Two ongoing projects, independent of one another, aim to ensure residents can access electricity, cool space, food and water during extended power outages — a need that was painfully exposed after Hurricane Ida in 2021 and again in June after a tornado-producing storm knocked out power to more than 200,000 customers in the Shreveport area in June, and thousands remained without power for more than a week. At least one person died from overheating during the blackout.

Power outages after Hurricane Ida caused the deaths of at least 11 Louisianans, nearly half of all storm-related deaths in the state, according to the state health department. Together New Orleans has said the number of blackout-related deaths from excessive heat or medical equipment failure was even higher.

The Community Lighthouse Project is equipping churches, health clinics and other community spaces with solar panels and batteries, so they don’t need to rely on grid power and faulty generators to stay open in emergencies. The nonprofit undertaking the project, Together New Orleans, ultimately wants to scatter 86 “lighthouses” throughout the state, so every resident lives within a 15-minute walk.

For now, the group is aiming to secure funding for 24 pilot locations. As much as two thirds of the $13.8 million needed for all 24 has been identified from public and private sources, though the group is still waiting on some of those commitments to be delivered.

Some of the solar panels on the roof of Household of Faith Church in New Orleans East. ( Photo by Chris Granger; The Times-Picayune)

Three lighthouses are already up and running in New Orleans, at Broadmoor Community Church, Bethlehem Lutheran Church and CrescentCare Health Center. Two more locations are set to come online soon, at New Wine Christian Fellowship in LaPlace and Household of Faith Family Worship Church in New Orleans East.

The pilot phase also includes the McKinley Alumni Center in Baton Rouge; Morning Star Baptist Church and Highland Center in Shreveport and a site in Alexandria. 

“The state needs resiliency. We are pre planning for it wherever we can,” said Pierre Moses, the project developer.

‘Just keep it going’

Feed the Second Line, a nonprofit group, has a similar idea with its “Get Lit Stay Lit” program, which is providing free solar installation at New Orleans restaurants. The goal is to make sure restaurant owners can quickly get back up and running after blackouts. Restaurant owners who evacuate will be able to remotely start up their refrigerators and freezers to prevent food waste ahead of their return.

Four installations have already been completed, including at Grace at the Green Light, which provides meals and other services for the homeless. The three restaurants are Queen Trini Lisa in Mid-City, Afrodisiac in Gentilly and Fritai in Treme.

Mary Clements, Seth Neo and Ian Michelson prepare the meals that are distributed to those who visit Grace at the Green Light Church on Pretha Castle Haley.

Plans call for another eight to 10 restaurant installations before the end of hurricane season, said Tinice Williams, executive director of Feed the Second Line.

“Turning those restaurants into first responders in their community also allows for them to reopen quickly,” Williams said.

Feed the Second Line hopes to raise $9 million over the next three years to create 300 “stay lit” locations, and recently secured more than $500,000 in city and federal grants, Williams said. Eventually, restaurant owners will be expected to contribute a portion of their solar-enabled energy savings to a fund that will be used to continue expanding the program.

“Now we are expanding, helping our neighbors in other parts of Louisiana, and possibly other parts of the world,” Williams said, referring to the potential of perpetual financing. “Just keep it going, keep it going.” 

The sun always rises

Those who have survived a natural disaster in a Louisiana summer and dealt with the no-power aftermath know the struggle of staying cool, charging phones and finding services for medical equipment that require electricity. 

North Louisiana Interfaith organizer Nathanael Wills acknowledged those challenges to the Shreveport-Bossier Advocate: “For people that are on Day 7 — that’s super intense and rough in this heat.”

Large churches are well positioned to become refuges during mass blackouts, since congregation members cast a wide social net in surrounding communities. The Community Lighthouse project aims to leverage those relationships to ensure everyone — congregation member or not — has a cool place to go and charge phones and medical devices.

“We know everyone in the community within a mile or so radius that needs their breathing machine connected to electricity, or they have someone in a wheelchair or somebody that’s bed bound,” said Rev. Antoine Barriere, pastor of the Household of Faith Family Worship Church.

Barriere and other religious and community leaders conceived the project after Ida. In exchange for the panels, Household of Faith and other solar recipients are required to maintain relationships with people living in designated response zones. That includes identifying residents with special health needs. They also must appoint a disaster response team to keep the facility running during an outage.

Additional services beyond electricity, food and water will be up for leaders at each facility to determine.

The typically bustling, 73,000-square-foot Household of Faith facility can accommodate about 300 people during a power outage, Barriere said. It also has 30 showers and space to house a limited number of people overnight, not to mention recreation rooms for kids and other areas that can serve as community gathering space.

Of course, the church itself needs to be powered to provide those benefits. Household of Faith had no generator after Ida and was forced to close for a couple days, Barriere said.

“It was just devastating,” Barriere said. “We were like a duck out of water. Without electricity, everything comes to a grinding halt.”

He hopes that more than 400 new rooftop panels, along with battery power, will help the church avoid that fate during the next blackout.

“No matter what, we know that sun is going to be up tomorrow,” Barriere said.