Gas-powered generators were a boon to those going days and weeks without power after Hurricane Sandy blasted through their East Coast neighborhoods. The generators dotted the landscape—at least in the areas of New Jersey I found myself in—dotting dark neighborhoods with welcome pools of light, their hum and fumes filling the air and their owners filling the lines at gas stations.
A green alternative exists—solar generators. But these aren’t exactly flying off the shelves of Home Depot. Actually, they aren’t even on the shelves of Home Depot; they’re just not suited for the average homeowner who loses power for a day or two once or twice a year. But, in a situation like Sandy, with large numbers of people without power for weeks, they have a role.
And they have some advantages over gas generators: They don’t require earplugs, careful placement for proper ventilation, or, most importantly constant refueling with expensive and hard-to-obtain gasoline.
They are, to be sure, of limited utility—fine for recharging your laptop and other battery-operated devices, not so good for powering your TV and surround-sound system after the sun sets. “The user has to balance the amount of power being used with the amount charging the batteries from the sun, ” says Christopher Meija of Consolidated Solar, a company that rents these mobile solar power stations. He compares “battery-state-of-charge anxiety” to electric car “range anxiety." (Solar generators will charge on cloudy days, just not as fast.)
They also take up more room than a fossil fuel generator, have to be carefully placed out of the shade, and are vastly more expensive—in the US $70 000 to $100 000 range, Meija says. Still, he points out, when rented, they typically save money over the costs of operating a gas-powered generator.
And they are being used in the wake of Sandy, thanks to a group of solar power organizations who have teamed up to provide solar generators free of charge to hard hit communities.
The Solar Sandy Project, as the organizations call it, has so far installed five 10-kilowatt solar generators in the Rockaways, and will be installing additional generators in Staten Island and Brooklyn in the next few days. They’re intended for neighborhood gathering points, where people can plug in laptops, cellphones, and power tools and heat food. The generators are being paid for by Solar City, a company that installs and maintains consumer solar power stations for a monthly fee akin to a utility bill, and are being provided by Consolidated Solar. Also involved is Solar One, a green energy education center in New York City.
The Solar Sandy Project is looking for help, including donations of solar generating equipment or cash as well as direct help from volunteers experienced in solar power installation or maintenance. They are also asking community organizations in the affected areas who would benefit from a solar generating station to apply on their website.
PHOTO: A mobile solar charger en route to the Rockaways. Source: Solar One