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One of the fields that has benefited from the use of microgrids is emergency management.

Outside the Center for Energy Education’s microgrid workshop last week were two organizations — the United Methodist Church Disaster Response Team of the North Carolina Conference and the Footprint Project, which displayed how they use the technology in the face of natural disasters and other events which could hamper service of electrical grids.

Al Miller, director of disaster ministries for the UMC team, describes the trailer he brought as a small microgrid. “The importance of that trailer is giving us the ability to go into an impacted community and immediately set up operations for people to come to for office help, for computers, for them to come in and charge their phones or their tablets.”

The trailer is also used for impacted residents to come and cool off through fans or air conditioning, Miller said. “It gives us the ability to give them a place to come to and do things.”

The panel used by the UMC disaster team generates 4,000 watts from a $15,000 investment.

The trailer was just recently built and deployed twice, Miller said. “People were coming up and charging coffee makers, people were charging cell phones. They were happy to see us. They were happy to have their lives back together again.”

Miller said there is a very limited operational period, however, he added, “Think about going into a community that’s lost everything. You can pull a washer and dryer trailer behind you and all of a sudden they can wash their clothes, they can take a shower.”

One of the events where the trailer was used was in the December aftermath of the Moore County substation attack. 

Behind the idea of the trailer, Miller said, was that going into disaster areas the first thing workers see are the needs of the people. “You’re trying to make their life a little bit better. They don’t have to leave and go to another community to live — they can stay there and they can still live at home but they come here and take care of their basic essential needs.”

Jamie Swezey is the program director of the Footprint Project, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing cleaner energy for communities in crisis. “We deploy our fleet of mobile solar generators to disasters, to disaster power outages with the goal of offsetting the use of traditional gas and fossil fuel generators.”

The Footprint Project started in 2018 after Hurricane Maria. The organization has about 30 trailers and about 100 solar generators.

Members of the project have been to around 20 disasters since beginning — disasters across the domestic United States and Puerto Rico.

Swezey said the importance of microgrids is not only about resilience but community-based resilience. “When you have people that are living and working in their own communities and they’re able to be in charge of their own response, I think that is one of the most important things when we’re talking about environmental justice and community resilience — people being able to take charge of their own response.”

While the groups receive a lot of “thank yous,” Swezey said the most rewarding thing for her “is to see the folks who are the most impacted by the effects of disasters and climate change being the ones deploying these units themselves.”

The Footprint Project works closely with Miller and the UMC team. “We built the large one together,” Swezey said, explaining the one on the display at the center was built in partnership with Duke Energy.

The UMC group is in charge of both units, Swezey said. “They know their community better than anyone. To have them be able to deploy the unit within their community … that’s the thing that makes me happy about the work that we do.”

Swezey said the microgrids are another tool emergency management officials can use. “I don’t think that fossil fuels or gas or diesel (will go away soon) but adding (solar) to their toolkit is important on their way to transition.”

C4EE Executive Director Mozine Lowe said, “As we see an increase in severe climate events resulting in more devastating emergency events around the country, we are faced with mitigating these challenges for our survival.”

Preserving an environment that sustains daily lives “is becoming more dire in terms of severity as well as increasing in regularity … The microgrid will be perhaps the most powerful energy innovation in meeting these life challenges. Microgrids will allow us to maintain emergency services in the most catastrophic situations.”

Lowe said microgrids are scalable and flexible making them adaptable to all the county’s critical infrastructure. “As the cost falls, we will see more microgrids in the near future.”