By Sabina Mollot
When hurricane Sandy hit New York, causing the East River to surge and flood the nearby streets and buildings, the Solar One building, located just a stone’s throw from the water, was certainly not spared the hurricane’s wrath.
The tiny, one-room structure, like many of the buildings that border it in Peter Cooper Village, Stuyvesant Town and Waterside Plaza, was battered. Walls will soon have to be replaced because of mold growth; outdoor stage and tool sheds were ripped to pieces.
“We got hit pretty hard,” said Chris Collins, Solar One’s executive director.
Still, the building that has, for the past seven years, served as environmental education center for the surrounding neighborhoods, is now also serving as a lifeline for areas of New York that have been without power since October 29.
After the blackout in Lower Manhattan, which followed the explosion of the nearby Con Ed substation, the solar PV (photovoltaic) array roof at Solar One continued to generate enough power to keep the building lit up. It also provided power to neighborhood residents looking to charge up their cell phones and laptops.
“We got the solar array running the next day,” said Collins. “We were lit up when Stuyvesant Town was dark and we had lights for the four days until power came back on. It came to be an amazing refuge center for the local community.”
Hearing the stories of residents who were far worse off prompted the center’s administrators to do more.
For the past couple of weeks, Solar One has been offering the use of five, portable solar-powered generators to various recovery efforts in the Rockaways. Dubbed the “Solar Sandy” project, the effort began when Chris Mejia, a man running a Pennsylvania-based solar generator leasing company, reached out to Solar One, in the hopes of partnering in some way.
Initially, Mejia’s company, Consolidated Solar, had tried to get involved in relief efforts through emergency agencies in New York City, “but he couldn’t get anywhere,” said Collins. “So we put him in touch with Solar City.”
Solar City, a solar energy system installation company, then agreed to fund the first month of the Consolidated Solar generators’ use in recovery efforts. Due to the cost of generators, the equipment is usually rented, and the cost would normally be around $3,000 a month per machine. Next month, HSBC, a new Solar Sandy partner, will be funding the use of those generators.
Additionally, Solar One has arranged for the deployment of an additional five machines through Consolidated Solar.
The generators so far have been used mainly to power up construction equipment and tools as well as food distribution centers. At first it was just in the Rockaways, but soon the generators will also be brought to Staten Island and Long Island. In some cases, the affected areas have had their power restored, but, said Collins, “Homes and businesses can’t connect to it until they’re visited by an electrician. So the power is coming on slowly and intermittently.”
As for the needs now faced by Solar One, while power isn’t an issue, along with the destruction of the walls and stage, the center also suffered the loss of everything that had been stored in its sheds.
This included its gardening equipment and sound systems that were “blown to smithereens,” said Collins. The organization also had additional equipment, such as a snow blower and power tools, stored in a rental unit in a Stuyvesant Town building basement. Unfortunately, that basement also flooded, destroying the equipment.
The park that surrounds Solar One, Stuyvesant Cove, also sustained heavy damage after being submerged in about 10 feet of salt water. All the plantings and at least eight trees were destroyed. A volunteer day was held two Saturdays ago to help put mulch down in garden areas and make repairs.
Meanwhile, as the center continues to recover along with the rest of the tri-state area, Collins said he was confident that the role of solar power won’t go unnoticed.
“People are starting to get it about renewable energy and solar, and the climate change discussion is back on the table,” he said. “People are starting to make the connection.”
By Sabina Mollot