HeatSpring’s Brit Heller connected with Will Heegaard, Operations Director, and Jamie Swezey, Program Coordinator, at Footprint Project. They help build back greener after climate disasters by mobilizing cleaner energy to communities in crisis. Footprint Project develops and deploys mobile solar generators to power front-line resilience efforts across the domestic United States, providing equipment, logistics, and training for survivors and responders. In 2021, their work spanned from communities in southeast Louisiana after Hurricane Ida, across the Pacific Coast in response to wildfires and heat waves, and in Kentucky after the deadly tornado in December.
Brit: Thank you both for sharing your work with the HeatSpring community. How did Footprint Project get started?
Will: We founded Footprint Project in 2018. I used to be a paramedic. In between my paramedic jobs, I would take months to do disaster response internationally. I worked as a program manager for International Medical Corps, which is a large major international disaster response nonprofit.
On my last contract in Guinea, West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, I was tasked with managing two programs, one of which was a lab specimen referral program. Basically, the program came in for seven months of work. The goal was to outfit five health centers with refrigerators and train the staff in rural Guinea to draw blood, store it, put it on a motorcycle, send it to Conakry, test it, get the results back so they could track Ebola, but also a bunch of other diseases like meningitis and VHF, and others.
None of those places had power obviously. One of the major line items in the budget for this work was generators and fuel. The plan was that we were going to buy these generators and these fridges. Then, we were going to reimburse these super rural labs to pay for gas in one of the poorest countries in the world. Hopefully, the cash would be used for the gas, but it was tough – four hours outside of a major city into the jungle basically.
Then, we’re going to hope that keeps the fridge running in order to keep the blood samples stored properly. It was a lot.
I had never heard of solar refrigeration. After a quick online search, I asked the logistics officer in Conakry, “can you find me these solar refrigerators? That seems like it would be way easier.” They came back the next day with three quotes.
It was either going to be around $2,000 for the generator and then $3,000 for fuel per month for the next six months for each site. On the other hand, it was approximately $5,000 upfront for the solar generator with the refrigerator, and it was warrantied for three years with service. We realized this is ridiculous. Why aren’t we using solar? We then pushed it through the CDC, who was funding the project.
I left that program wondering why solar wasn’t institutionalized across the aid sector. The international space is now really ahead of this. There’s a lot more work being done in refugee camps and large-scale long-term disasters where they’re looking at how to implement cleaner technologies early so that they have that payout. For example, if a refugee camp is going to be there for 17 years, the diesel truck costs instantly make a microgrid very appetizing for the donors.
When I came back to the domestic US, I saw that there was no thought put into how we locally power our disaster response and recovery operations. Footprint Project was basically an evolution of that challenge.
We realized that the reason either first or second responders and the firefighters down the street don’t have or don’t utilize solar or electric batteries – essentially cleaner energy systems – is because of a combination of lack of awareness and training and lack of funding. They’re still more expensive. The payout timeline is different here. You need a charitable organization or a nonprofit to subsidize a lot of those costs until the battery prices go down and the disaster fuel prices go up right until they middle out.
That was really what started Footprint Project. Then, we started reaching out to solar and battery companies for equipment donations, cobbling it all together. Then deploying it regionally when a disaster power outage happens.
Last year was by far our biggest year yet. Hurricane Ida completely changed how we were operating. We’re still tiny, but we’d never had that type of support come through for a single operation before.
At this moment, we’re trying to step back and look at the next five years thinking what it’s going to take. How can we expand this to truly get the tools that are needed across the Pacific coast and across the Gulf coast, primarily for wildfire and hurricane resilience? How can we move the needle on climate neutral disaster response?
Brit: Your work is amazing. It’s so needed. What are some of the avenues to your approach?
Will: We think of them as 3 programs. First, disaster response and recovery – mobilizing as many non-fossil fuel or hybrid generators to a disaster as quickly as possible. That means asking for anyone who has them to send them regionally and then having people maintain them onsite, because a lot of people have never seen a solar generator or a solar panel, much less have plugged into one. That’s our core number one program channel.
Our second channel is community resilience. Once the grid’s back on in the community, how do we assemble more systems to be available in that community ahead of the next storm? How do we train many people on how to plug into those effectively before the next storm? That’s basically developing new networks of community, mobile solar generators, and training folks on how to use them.
The third program channel that we’ve backed into simply because we’re still relatively small and we don’t have a $5 million solar generator procurement budget is incorporating second life solar equipment into all of the programming. Solar panels are still functional usually for 5 to 10 years after they come down from these large utility scale fields. We haven’t even started to see the iceberg of lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries. It’s clearly in alignment with our sustainability mission to incorporate those components to reduce the costs of these generators that can then be used for disasters.
Jamie: I’ll give an example of our community resilience work. In New Orleans, we actually did two community builds in Southeast Louisiana after Ida for our resiliency programming. Community builds are one of my favorite things to do because we believe the best way to teach people about mobile solar off grid systems is to build the infrastructure with them. We have a bunch of different kinds of solar trailers, many of which are the products of community builds.
In Louisiana, we partnered with Schneider Electric, who is a big supporter. Basically we put the panels on the roof. We put the power electronics, like the inverter and the batteries, inside the trailer. We build out the components with folks from the community, with the idea being that they’re learning about solar and battery technology and also how to deploy it themselves the next time there’s a disaster in their own community. We’re also working with a group called Groundwork New Orleans. We’re going to get started on those two trailers soon.
Brit: There’s nothing like getting your hands on the technology. I bet people are excited to learn with you. Do you have many community builds looking into the future?
Will: For us, it’s always about the battery, right? Batteries usually are the highest costs, the hardest thing to find, and the hardest thing to get donated. Once we get that equipment, then we can assemble the program and the community builds around that.
Jamie: What I love about Will’s vision and I admire so much is that all three pieces of Footprint’s work – the disaster response and recovery, the training and resiliency programming, and the solar waste recovery – all work together. We talked about the first two. Let’s talk about the last one – solar waste recovery.
Second life panels and second life batteries are given to us. That’s the equipment that we use for our community builds, which then get deployed to disasters. Now, we’ve built this really awesome ecosystem that came out of essentially us asking for help from big companies.
Brit: It’s incredible what you have been able to build with that support. Speaking of which, your work is very in line with many people in the HeatSpring community. How can people get involved with your mission to provide cleaner energy to communities in crisis?
Will: I’d love to say we want everybody who wants to get involved to sign up as a volunteer on our website, but I want to acknowledge ahead of time that we’re still incredibly small. We’re building out our volunteer engagement program this spring, and that’ll involve training and getting disaster response certified.
Otherwise, we’re always still working to get more batteries because our work really hinges on how many batteries we can access. We can’t build a new trailer. We can’t put another generator out in service. We can’t do a community build – until we have the battery. The other stuff, like charge controllers and inverters, are usually much easier to fund.
Another way to help is sharing our work, particularly within the solar and storage community. People get really excited about the work that we’re doing.
For example, I recently had somebody tell me about the DER [Distributed Energy Resource] Task Force. It’s a networking group mostly based in New York City and the Bay Area. This group of amazing people created a GoFundMe for our cause and raised $60,000 for Footprint Project’s work in Louisiana within a month! That’s what literally kept us doing our work after Hurricane Ida.
The point of that story is that sharing within the industry is super powerful -even if it’s just sharing more information about us in an internal newsletter or Slack channel.
We are also always looking for donations – whether it’s matching donations with your company, second life equipment donations, battery donations or donating to us directly on our site. Every little bit helps.
Brit: Thank you so much for being here and sharing the important work of Footprint Project!