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Resilient Solar Connects Community Values and Disaster Preparedness

The Institute for Sustainable Communities recently released Resilient Solar: Powering and Empowering Communities, a report that shares the stories of trailblazing resilient solar projects in New York City, Baltimore, Duluth, and San Francisco, and connects readers to tools, resources, and lessons learned that they can put to use in their own communities.

This is the first of a four-part series telling how communities are using solar to become more resilient.

Duluth is Connecting Solar Goals to Community Values and Disaster Preparedness

In June of 2012, a 500-year rainfall event in Duluth, Minnesota, damaged homes, businesses, roads, and municipal water systems—causing more than $100 million in damages.  As the regional organization designated to lead post-disaster household rebuilding, Ecolibrium3 began exploring options for greater energy resilience in the area. In this process, Ecolibrium3 identified an opportunity to create a community resilience center at the Hartley Nature Center, a community institution on city-owned property, to demonstrate community energy independence and resilience.

Using the Hartley Nature Center as a model, Ecolibrium3 is working to advance Duluth’s solar market toward its first megawatt of solar by connecting the concept of energy resilience with existing community goals of independence and preparedness.

HOW THEY ARE DOING IT

Ecolibrium3 is in the unique position to listen to and articulate its community’s needs. Through extensive community resilience design sessions, energy charrettes for expanding solar, day-to-day education and engagement with local residents, and partnerships with the university and city, the organization is able to understand and act on the needs and goals of the community.

The Hartley Nature Center is considered a valuable community asset, hosting educational programs and camps for more than 10,000 school-aged children per year and serving more than 30,000 park visitors per year.  The opportunity to invest in the facility in a way that would build community resilience garnered broad community support. The Hartley Nature Center was constructed as a “net-zero building” and had been equipped with a 13 kW solar array, but the system had fallen into disrepair.

The nature center partnered with Ecolibrium3 and the City of Duluth to retrofit the existing solar array and add a 6 kW battery backup system.  Now it can now be used as a community shelter and a base of operations for the city during emergencies.

The Harley Nature Center

The project’s potential value was made clear just before installation, as a major rainstorm with hurricane-force winds ripped through the city, knocking down trees and power lines and taking out the center’s power. The summer camps, which largely fund the center’s programming, had to be cancelled and parents were forced to find alternative child care or take time off of work. The increased cost of battery backup became financially justifiable as an added-insurance element, even if it could carry the nature center and community through just one similar event.

Not only did the Hartley Nature Center project succeed in educating the community and demonstrating the value of resilient solar, it also built the organizational capacity of Ecolibrium3 and its partner, the University of MinnesotaDuluth (UMD), to support additional resilient solar projects.

The university, which provided technical assistance to the retrofit and helped bolster Ecolibrium3’s understanding of storage, has continued to work on energy resilience. Since the battery system was installed, graduate and undergraduate students have been monitoring the storage system, optimizing the battery for the building’s load for each season, and watching battery performance to reduce peak demand over the course of each month. UMD students also complete sustainability projects with the community each semester, with an increasing focus on energy resiliency.

Ecolibrium3 has continued to partner with UMD to elevate the Hartley project as a successful demonstration of resilient solar through professional educational engagements and community outreach. Ecolibrium3 incorporates energy resilience and storage into their programming and one-on-one engagements with community members, which has led to one of the first installations of a Tesla power wall by a private residence in the area.

The project’s educational outreach ranges from explaining the basics of resilient solar to providing technical assistance on how a storage system could help residents and businesses island, or detach from the grid, during a disaster. It has gained the attention of energy stakeholders across the state, with University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab using the Hartley retrofit as an example for testimony to state public utilities commission, showing the potential for storage in the state.  A detailed case study is available at bit.ly/hartley-nature-center.

NEXT STEPS

Ecolibrium3’s work to educate the community on storage and the project at Hartley Nature Center has helped city officials see the value and potential of resilient solar. The city is now pursuing resilient solar at each of their main parks and community centers and are working to identify funding to support their work. Duluth reached its goal of 1 MW solar electric generation by the end of 2017.

In addition, Ecolibrium3, the city, and UMD have identified water treatment and distribution as a high priority for resilient solar installation, as the city came close to not having enough backup power to pump water as a result of the 2016 windstorm. This work also prompted further resilience research from UMD students on hybrid generation and resilient solar for water treatment and distribution.

This excerpt is from Resilient Solar: Powering and Empowering Communities, a report produced by the Institute for Sustainable Communities with support from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, The Kresge Foundation, and The JPB Foundation.

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