Minneapolis

Building solar to power disaster response

Interview with Footprint Project

#BuildBackGreener

 

From providing access to emergency solar recharging at community spaces in Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd earlier this year, to aiding recovery efforts following earthquakes in Puerto Rico, storms in Iowa, and now wildfires in California, the Footprint Project has stayed busy in 2020, with no shortage of crises demanding attention, care, and clean energy.

A nonprofit based in Minneapolis, Footprint Project provides sustainable solutions to communities in crisis by mobilizing distributed clean energy assets. We spoke with William Heegaard and Greta Goetz from the team to learn more about the organization and its work.

 

Footprint is this conduit and connector to provide clean energy for communities in crisis and to help inspire them to build back greener, which is a really exciting role for us to play.

William Heegaard, founder and executive director of Footprint Project
 

Footprint Project is working to green the disaster response industry by deploying mobile clean energy technology to communities in need across the U.S., and beyond. The organization works with partners to meet emergency power needs in the days and weeks following a crisis.

“We often work with community groups because these are the groups that can’t afford a diesel generator. We work together to determine a public site and set up clean energy access stations with cell phone chargers and a refrigerator for insulin, following a disaster,” said William Heegaard, founder and executive director of Footprint Project, who brings a background in both disaster response and sustainable development to this work.

Heegaard sees a need to shift power production in disaster response away from diesel generators and toward clean energy, but because firefighters and other first responders are typically trained to operate diesel generators, they can be hesitant to use new technologies.

There’s a need to educate, and there’s a need to get clean energy equipment into first responders’ hands before a storm or disaster so they’re comfortable working with these technologies when the lights go out. If we can get first responders off of diesel, we can shift the whole response and recovery system.

William Heegaard, founder and executive director of Footprint Project
 

“There’s a need to educate, and there’s a need to get clean energy equipment into first responders’ hands before a storm or disaster so they’re comfortable working with these technologies when the lights go out. If we can get first responders off of diesel, we can shift the whole response and recovery system. It’s a lot easier for a disaster-affected community to envision a future for their neighborhood if the emergency aid station down the street is being powered by a mobile solar microgrid,” noted Heegaard.

Each disaster and emergency the Footprint Project responds to, Heegaard explained, is unique, and it’s clear the need for clean energy in the aftermath is growing.

“Footprint is this conduit and connector to provide clean energy for communities in crisis and to help inspire them to build back greener, which is a really exciting role for us to play,” said Heegaard.

It takes a village

The organization employs a nimble staff based in Minneapolis and draws on a robust network of partners to carry out its work. In addition to crisis response and recovery, the organization helps groups build resilience through hands-on training, design, and deployment support of distributed energy resources.

“Since we’re on the smaller side with only a few staff, we all wear a lot of different hats. We step up where we can to manage the logistics and deployments of our equipment, support communities, and work with lots of different partners,” said Greta Goetz, a program administrator with Footprint Project. Goetz joined the organization in March 2020, and brings a background in refugee resettlement to the team.

 

“In general, we want to be responding to energy needs from natural disasters as soon as we can after the power or grid goes down,” Goetz explained about the organization’s triage and intake process in the event of a disaster. When the team and their equipment arrives onsite, emergency energy needs are prioritized, powering essential services including communications, lighting, refrigerators, and sometimes an air conditioning unit to support first responders and the most vulnerable.

“It becomes a triage of needs and users,” said Heegaard, summarizing the disaster response process on how and to whom Footprint Project provides its equipment during a crisis.

One of the organization’s core partners is Rent Solar, a for-profit social enterprise also based in Minnesota, that Heegaard helps run. A general benefit corporation, Rent Solar develops the technology and solar trailers that the Footprint Project team then works to deploy for communities in crisis.

When the solar generators and clean energy assets are not being used for disaster response, Rent Solar rents equipment to outdoor events, construction sites, film sets, weddings, and more. Although this service and revenue stream has largely slowed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Heegaard noted.

“There is alignment in our work, but we at Footprint are on the nonprofit side providing this essential disaster response service, which has certainly been in high demand this year,” said Goetz.

The team works closely with community partners to meet other needs and find creative uses for the equipment, when it is not deployed to the front lines following a disaster.

We build the solar equipment, but building it is just half the battle. These efforts take a lot of volunteers to make a deployment of the equipment work at all. It really is a community effort.

William Heegaard, founder and executive director of Footprint Project
 

“We build the solar equipment, but building it is just half the battle. These efforts take a lot of volunteers to make a deployment of the equipment work at all. It really is a community effort,” said Heegaard.

The whole point, Heegaard explains, is that these mobile clean energy resources get deployed and used where they are needed most.

“If someone is doing something good for their community, we want to get them power when we’re not actively deploying our equipment in an emergency. There are mobile solar assets that we have available for community use,” Heegaard said. “That’s the whole reason we’re doing this. We want this equipment to be deployed and useful to partners, not sitting in a parking lot somewhere.”

Helping Minneapolis heal with clean energy

As protests erupted in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd, Footprint Project turned its attention locally to work with community organizations on three solar deployments to energize the memorial site, relief spaces, and displaced persons encampments.

“Our efforts working in Minneapolis this summer were especially interesting for us because this was one of the first times we really turned our eyes to our own backyard,” said Goetz. “We were working just a few minutes away from where we were all living.”

The team staged a solar trailer at the George Floyd Memorial to provide clean energy to the medic tent located onsite; partnered with local organization Voices from the Ashes to set up a solar generator to power a soundstage across from the Minneapolis 3rd Precinct; and deployed a solar tent and trailer to the Powderhorn Park Encampment Sanctuary, which provided sustainable power and shelter for the main medical clinic on-site, along with cell phone and medical device charging for camp residents.

 

“What was striking to me was how involved the community was, and how collaborative a process it was getting these projects in place. Everyone we worked with here in Minneapolis was so eager to help and so cooperative, which was really nice to see,” Goetz said.

Despite clear successes helping communities recover and build resilience, Goetz noted how this work can come with some challenges.

“In some instances, we’ve run into red tape with licenses and permitting in some locations to continue helping longer term, especially on an ongoing basis around issues like the encampments in Minneapolis. So right now, we’re waiting to hear back from partners to see how we can help more in some of those cases or as other needs come up,” she said.

A more resilient clean energy recovery

As the scale and frequency of disasters continue to increase with climate change, first responders and communities are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

“We saw in Puerto Rico, when the diesel supply chain was interrupted for months, so many groups realized how important these distributed solar energy resources were,” Heegaard said.

As more communities, utilities, and aid groups recognize the costs of outages and repairing power lines following disasters, Heegaard sees a clear path to increased investment in solar and storage. In some cases, he says, these disasters can be a tipping point to “leapfrog the traditional grid,” while providing resilience against future storms, greater energy independence, and improved quality of life for community members.

Anyone who has been able to flip the switch and see lights come on for a neighborhood in the dark, all without the fumes or noise of a gas generator, knows how mobile solar can change the game. It empowers folks to participate in and take charge of their own community’s recovery.

William Heegaard, founder and executive director of Footprint Project
 

“Anyone who has been able to flip the switch and see lights come on for a neighborhood in the dark, all without the fumes or noise of a gas generator, knows how mobile solar can change the game. It empowers folks to participate in and take charge of their own community’s recovery,” he said.

The Footprint Project team will continue to support the needs and recovery of the communities with which it works to help build a cleaner, more resilient energy system. As interest in their work grows, the organization continues to lend its expertise and regional network of partners and solar assets to those who need it most.

“Our goals for 2021 are to grow the pool of mobile solar equipment available for regional power outage response, and train professional and community first responders on this equipment. Our country needs thousands of mobile solar generators, with a network of trained, local technicians to dispatch and maintain them. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s been rewarding to develop the groundwork and build relationships with so many partners in this work. It’s been an amazing community of people to be a part of,” Heegaard said.

Want to help?

If you are interested in helping Footprint Project #BuildBackGreener, the organization is currently seeking:

  1. Cash & Equipment Donations
    Cash is the most effective, flexible, and sustainable way to support disaster-affected communities, but Footprint also accepts batteries, inverters, solar panels, wiring, in priority order.
  2. Volunteers
    Sign up to help build back greener in your community.

  3. Twitter & Instagram
    Share Footprint Project’s work, attention helps the organization find more of the first two.
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