Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, parts of Queens that still lack electricity, like the Rockaways, face a pretty basic impediment to getting electrified once more: "There’s no grid," says Robert Gardner, a clean energy campaigner for Greenpeace. "It doesn’t exist. The notion of centralized electricity generation"—that of big power plants providing juice to homes and businesses through a network of power lines—"is moot."
Gardner’s prognosis is severe, but his actions during the past two weeks suggest that temporary solutions are possible. Just days after the storm cleared, Gardner and other Greenpeace employees rumbled onto the scene in the Rockaways in Greenpeace’s mobile power plant: Rolling Sunlight, a biodiesel-powered Isuzu truck tricked out with more than 250 square feet of solar panels.
Gardner says the the truck—affectionately called Suz—provides enough electricity to power everything from power tools to heaters to light bulbs. Residents can plug extension cords right into it, and its batteries store about 50 kilowatt hours of electricity, so it still can produce electricity on cloudy days.
Ironically, the 10-year-old piece of technology wasn’t originally designed for disaster relief. Rolling Sunlight, "went on tour throughout the country, throughout college campuses" to raise awareness about solar power before it was as widespread. Gardner says. "It was powering concerts and food fairs and local bands" and tourist attractions like the Coit Tower in San Francisco.
But now, the truck is at the center of a movement to take solar power seriously as a solution to the Rockaways’ power troubles. Gardner says it’s "guesswork" to talk about when the power company will get the lights back on there. "I’ve heard mid-December. I would be surprised."
Citizens and activist clearly can’t wait another month to get back to normal. A coalition of solar companies and nonprofits have distributed five 10-kilowatt solar generators throughout the Rockaways and Staten Island, which also lacks power. Gardner says he thinks that Occupy Sandy, the Occupy Wall Street spinoff group who is working on relief in the neighborhood and helped bring Rolling Sunlight to the area, will use donations on solar and other green construction.
Across New Jersey and Queens, Gardner says that people who already had solar installed are much better off. And other people are taking notice too. Neighbors are "talking about green jobs; they’re talking about rebuilding in an ecologically sustainable fashion; they’re talking about how can this moment become a more powerful moment for communities throughout New york to come together."
Gardner adds that "the larger idea is to open up this somewhat mysterious and transparent thing—our electricty grid—so that the people, everyday citizens, have the same ability to generate electricity using fuel from the sun and the wind, [which] does not contribute to climate change, which makes these storms stronger," Gardner says.
"Exxon shouldn’t get richer because there’s big storms."