Power to the People

As an environmental planner in a Montgomery, Alabama where many environmental issues have yet to hit the mainstream, I read with great interest technology developments in the area of renewable energy. I was especially interested in a company that is developing a portable solar system that could be used in remote areas of the world and might even be able to be dropped by airplane. Such a system is needed now in New Orleans and especially in the remote areas as yet untouched by even the Red Cross much less FEMA. If there were a place ready made to demonstrate the validity and usefulness of renewable energy, surely the Gulf Coast is that place.

Unfortunately the bureaucracy (federal, state and local) moves at the speed of tectonic plates on most issues and perhaps especially on items it considers to be unproven. Surely this could be the time and the place, to demonstrate beyond a doubt the viability of developing our grid and off-grid power systems and the need to incorporate renewable resources and redundancy into the mix. In the south, many homes are powered by electricity but the furnace is often gas. Power lines in the older neighborhoods are usually overhead while gas lines are buried. Very few geo-exchange, solar installations small wind, or other renewable energy projects have been done and so far there are no incentives in Alabama to do so at any level. Louisiana and Mississippi appear to have the same situation. It is important to remember that what has happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast could happen in any our cities. It might not be a hurricane or flood but it could be a tornado, an overturned train of toxic substances, even something as mundane as an ice or snow storm. And of course, the possibility of a terrorist act is now a bigger part of the picture giving the current state of the world. Cities have an obligation to protect their citizens and are in the best position to plan for emergencies. Some of this is being done through state and county EMA’s. The tragic error in this approach is that it is far more expensive to respond after the fact than to plan how best to mitigate and strive for a continuity of services before the act. What is not being done is planning and development of infrastructure to make our cities more resilient to threats. A diversification of our energy supplies, both nationally and locally, should be part of this effort. As the debate still plays out over how to rebuild New Orleans, it would be both prudent and forward-looking to allow the city to be used as a testing ground on how cities can best plan and develop a power infrastructure that includes renewable energy both for short term emergency responses and for the longer term power needs of its citizens. Not being an engineer or a renewable energy expert, I have trouble envisioning quite what seems to be needed but surely this is where the best heads in the private sector could help develop and demonstrate what is indeed within the realm of the possible. Surely if viable off-grid portable solar electric systems exist, they could be sent to New Orleans and some of the badly ignored outlying areas for real-world testing. Now that the hurricane season has passed, semi-permanent solar arrays could be placed in the areas scraped clear in the Ninth Ward so that people could have a power source available at least for lights. The local energy utility declared bankruptcy and yet is trying to restore power but it is a very slow process that is hindering the rebuilding effort. And there is no concerted effort to rebuild with any new approach to solidifying the energy infrastructure; it’s still the same vulnerable poles and overhead wire that went down so easily in the storm. All sorts of plans are being drawn and recommended and many suggest that the low-lying areas should not be rebuilt at all. This would be a clear case of environmental injustice since the majority of those affected are poor. This was the land they were historically allowed to buy and many worked all their lives to own a very small piece of the American Dream. Now they are being told their dream has no value except as green-space. Whatever decision is made should include their input and yet they cannot return to voice that input if they have no power to assist them in cleaning up their homes and businesses. Access to renewable energy now could give them a chance and a voice. Surely if there was ever a need to help our fellow citizens and also demonstrate beyond doubt the urgent need for renewable power, the time is now and the place New Orleans, LA. About the author… Kitty Chamberlain is in the Planning and Development Department for the City of Montgomery, Alabama.

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