Click on the photo above to view a full-screen slideshow. Photos courtesy of the Florida Solar Energy Center.

In general, schools make excellent resilient shelters, as they are centrally located, can accommodate many people, and typically have large, flat roofs and open spaces where PV panels can be installed.

SunSmart Emergency Shelters Program

Multiple Locations, Florida

Beginning in 2012, in an effort coordinated by University of Central Florida’s (UCF’s) Florida Solar Energy Center in collaboration with the Florida Office of Energy, Florida’s SunSmart E-Shelter Program has equipped more than 100 public schools with small PV systems and batteries, which are sufficient to keep lights and electrical outlets operating during a grid-disrupting natural disaster.  This enables these schools to serve as self-powered places of refuge for communities across the state, providing emergency shelter for 100-500 people per site.

During normal operations, the schools’ solar PV systems are keeping the battery full and selling power to the grid; then, during power outages, the solar PV systems provide power to pre-determined critical loads, like lighting, outlets for charging, and communications. There are signs next to the switches and outlets that explain these fixtures are solar powered and available for use during an outage.

Schools often make excellent emergency shelters, as they are centrally located and can accommodate many people. Also, schools typically have large, flat roofs and open spaces where PV panels can be installed, in fact many schools across the nation already have solar installed. In the case of the Florida program, the state designated selected schools as hurricane shelters, with interior spaces retrofitted as hardened “enhanced hurricane protection areas.”

The SunSmart solar+storage systems were put to the test, and proved their worth, when Hurricane Irma hit Florida on October 24, 2017. During the widespread outages resulting from the storm, 41 of the 112 schools were open as shelters using their solar+storage systems (35 schools did not open as shelters and 13 schools were open as shelters but did not lose power). Among the schools that operated as shelters, one school-based emergency shelter accommodated residents with special needs and another shelter was pet-friendly. One of the schools ran out of gas for backup generators, but the solar+storage system continued to supply power serving the emergency shelter.

Schools make an excellent site for renewable energy generation because of the opportunity to integrate these systems into the curriculum, as is being done in this Florida program. Through the SunSmart E-Shelter Program, more than 350 teachers have received professional development in incorporating the science of solar PV into their classrooms. More than 50,000 students have been introduced to solar PV as a result, using a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum that was also developed through the SunSmart E-Shelters program. Each school was provided with a kit of materials for lab tests and a website to view their school’s solar PV output. The curriculum is designed to teach students how solar PV works, how to prepare for disasters, and the relationship between energy and the environment.

Each shelter is supported by a small solar+storage system – a typical system consists of a 10kW solar PV array, with a 40kWh battery – that are relatively inexpensive to deploy: installed costs range from $74,000 to $90,000 per school. Because the program is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which designated stimulus funds to be invested in infrastructure, education, and renewable energy, all components are required to be U.S.-made. The state was able to negotiate a volume discount by using a single installer for the entire state. Schools received the systems at no cost, and program staff calculated that the systems would save each school around $1,500-$1,600 per year in electricity costs.

Energy storage experts recently discussed solar+storage solutions for resilience and recovery during natural disaster, including the Florida SunSmart E-Shelter Program, during the Clean Energy States Alliance webinar titled, “Energy Storage Solutions for Disaster Recovery and Resilience: How to get Power Back to the Islands.”

Installation Details

Year Commissioned: 2012

Services Provided: Backup power, Renewables integration

Supported Infrastructure: Emergency shelters at public schools

Solar: 10kW per system

Storage: 40kWh lead acid battery per system

Project Partners: University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center and Florida Office of Energy