STUYVESANT TOWN — When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the city, the tiny, one-story building that houses green-energy education center Solar One stood in one of the worst possible spots — past the massive residential towers of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, beyond the FDR Drive and within spitting distance of the swelling East River.
Just as the storm flooded the streets around Stuy Town, it submerged Solar One in roughly 10 feet of water. It lifted the facility’s 20-by-24-foot wooden stage from the front of the building and tossed it around to the back. The surge demolished two storage sheds stocked with supplies and filled the inside of the building with 2 feet of water.
But, two days after the devastating storm with the skyline of lower Manhattan still blackened, Solar One had power, enough to switch on its lights and to set up two charging stations on site for area residents. While the rest of the city was forced to wait on Con Edison to repair damaged substations and downed lines, the center had solar panels on its roof to keep the energy flowing.
Its neighborhood charging stations became lifelines for residents left in the dark in the days after the storm. Now, with power restored throughout Manhattan, Solar One is using the the sun to bring electricity to other neighborhoods in need with its Solar Sandy Project, a collaborative effort to send solar generators to areas still left in the dark.
“It’s been an amazing effort,” said Christopher Collins, Solar One’s executive director. “We firmly believe that these kinds of things, in particular standalone solar [generator] systems, are going to have to be a big part of any disaster preparedness planning going forward.”
The idea to spread solar power throughout the storm-battered city came from Chris Mejia, of Consolidated Solar in Pennsylvania, who wanted to use solar generators to light hard-hit parts of New York, Collins said.
Mejia reached out to Solar One, which put him in touch with SolarCity, a solar installation company that agreed to foot the bill for the generators.
So far, the coordinated effort has succeeded in bringing five 10-kilowatt solar generators to the Rockaways, Staten Island and Long Island.
“The hardest hit areas of Sandy are still without power and will be one of the biggest reconstruction projects in the country,” Mejia said in a statement. “We are pleased to be able to help."
Collins said the project is targeting areas that have become hubs for different communities so that they can serve as many people as possible. The generators can power electronic devices, tools, medical equipment and even hot water heaters as larger-scale versions of the charging stations Solar One set up along the East River after the storm.
Collins said roughly 50 people a day stopped by Solar One to use the charging stations they set up to power everything from cell phones to nebulizers. That, along with the Solar Sandy Project, is reinvigorating discussion about the role of renewable energy in keeping New York City up and running.
“It’s all back on the table for discussion,” he said.
Although the Solar Sandy Project falls directly in line with the Solar One mission of promoting urban sustainability and education, it’s also a case of paying it forward.
Solar One's tiny riverfront building drew some 200 volunteers after the storm, Collins said. Some walked from as far away as Astoria to clear chunks of wood from Stuyvesant Cove Park, which Solar One maintains. One man then used that wood to build a new front deck for Solar One over the course of two or three afternoons. And countless others have helped prop up damaged trees and spread top soil over the storm-ravaged park.
“It was this really cool, sort of instant community,” Collins said. “We’ve been very fortunate.”