The increasing number of recent natural disasters, and the tragic loss of life as a result of them, have demonstrated the absolute necessity for independent power sources. A recent United Nations report reveals that the number of displaced people has reached an astounding 65.3 million worldwide. Not only are homes and communities destroyed, but the death toll due to the loss of power continues to rise long after the natural disaster has ended. Already devastated communities continue to suffer as hospitals are unable to provide life-saving services. Unrefrigerated food spoils, causing hunger, illness, and even death.
The Asian Development Bank estimates that half of the world’s economic losses from natural disasters and extreme weather conditions during the past 20 years have been in Asia. Those losses represent a loss of approximately $53.8 billion dollars every year. However, natural disasters have been occurring with greater frequency all over the globe. An earthquake in Haiti in 2010 killed approximately 220,000 people and left an additional 1.5 million people homeless. The death toll caused by the unprecedented power of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico continues to rise as residents still without power struggle to survive. The cost in terms of human suffering is incalculable.
A number of solar solutions have been implemented in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. One of them is the first solar-powered fire station in Puerto Rico. According to officials, the setup includes solar panels and battery storage, which is both more reliable and resilient than diesel-fueled generators. The rooftop solar panels can withstand winds up to 150 miles per hour. Another benefit of solar solutions is that they provide immediate relief. The traditional power grid will take months to rebuild, while solar technology provided power for first responders within days, bypassing bureaucratic red tape.
Solar solutions also saved lives after the tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, as well as demonstrating the dangers of nuclear energy coupled with natural disasters. When the Dai-ichi nuclear plant lost power, even emergency power generators were rendered inoperable. That loss of power meant the reactor’s cooling system could not function, which resulted in a nuclear radiation leak. The death toll from the accident would have been much greater if an independent micro-grid 70 miles away hadn’t supplied power to a nearby university and hospital.
Research and Development
According to a recent article, Alexis Kwasinski of the Cockrell School of Engineering is studying power infrastructures and how they react to various types of natural disasters. His research is focused on communications infrastructures and independent micro-grids. These decentralized grids generate and store electricity using various power sources, including solar. When a natural disaster affects the main power grid, these micro-grids remain unaffected and can be used to power hospitals and makeshift refugee centers. They can also be used to refrigerate foods and medicines.
Another new and equally important development in solar technology are roll-up solar panels. Tech company Renovagen was honored as the winner of a small business contest in 2016 for the most innovative use of renewable energy. Their Rapid Roll system allows solar panels to be unfurled from the back of a truck. Amazingly, enough solar panels to power a 120-bed mobile clinic or desalinate 25,000 liters of water in a single day can be packed into a single 4×4 trailer. This technology is invaluable during natural disasters, since mobile medical care and fresh water are of the essence in saving lives.
Other researchers have developed algorithms that prioritize the distribution of power using factors including weather forecasts, projected power usage, and amount of power available. These algorithms also allow individual homes to disconnect from the grid and share power from renewable energy sources during a power outage. Further, the system is up to 35% more reliable than traditional systems. Although individual systems provide more optimal performance, larger-scale community storage systems are more beneficial in crisis situations such as natural disasters.
According to the Aid & International Development Forum, another important recent innovation is a portable solar lamp that can provide light up to 16 times brighter than that of a kerosene lantern. Its battery power can last up to 45 continuous hours on a single charge. The lamp also features cell phone charging capability, making it possible for families to locate missing members and keep in touch with those in distant locations. The lamps have already been used successfully in disaster relief efforts in Haiti, Nepal, Rwanda, and the Philippines.
The Power of Cooperation
The Solar Energy Industries Association says that just since Hurricane Maria, it has received pledges of over $1.2 million. Those pledges include products from solar energy companies as well as financial contributions. Tesla has pledged solar storage batteries and micro-grid products, including its solar power wall. New Star Solar contributed $300,000 worth of solar generators and panels. While the generous contributions of individual alternative energy companies is important, government action is also necessary. There are already several good examples of what can be accomplished through the cooperative efforts of researchers, corporations, and governments.
The government of Thailand, a country that experiences frequent natural disasters, including floods, has set a goal of providing 25% of its total energy from renewable sources by 2021. Located near the equator, with average solar radiation of 5.05 kWh/m2 per day, it is in an excellent position to take advantage of the benefits that solar power offers. One project, a solar power plant called “Sunny Bangchak”, led by Bangchak Petroleum, utilizes 157,200 photovoltaic modules. It is estimated that the plant replaces 30,000 tons of coal, thereby eliminating 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s the equivalent of planting three million trees or removing 9,000 cars from the highway.
In the United States, hundreds of clean energy bills have been introduced in 2017 alone. However, there are a number of factors which determine whether those bills will become laws. Those factors include geography and available resources as well as politics, existing laws, and competing interests, both corporate and public. Power companies are among those corporate interests and often wield considerable political influence. Researchers investigating ways to use renewable power during outages after Hurricane Sandy noted that one of the major obstacles to implementing systems independent of the grid is that in many states, regulations prevent homeowners with solar energy sources from selling power to other residents.
Funding is another major obstacle to the creation and implementation of solar-powered systems that are independent of the existing grid. According to one article, in India, it costs $2,500 for a hundred households to be wired to generation hubs using inexpensive aluminum rather than copper wiring. The hubs consist of solar panels and a battery pack. These simple hubs can only generate enough power for lighting and phone charging. American building codes are much stricter, which is one factor in higher costs.
Research shows that independent micro-grids are essential for maintaining power and saving lives during natural disasters and should be an integral part of every community’s emergency preparedness strategy. By working together, local and global communities can achieve the clean energy and community safety goals so necessary to ensuring the future of humanity.