SEAS Students Bring Power in Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Two Columbia Engineering graduate students are bringing some positive energy to a community devastated by Hurricane Sandy and where many residents are still without power.

Rob van Haaren and Garrett Fitzgerald, both doctoral candidates in earth and environmental engineering, have co-designed and built a portable solar array. Days after the hurricane, the duo set it up at St. Gertrude’s Church and Youth Center in Rockaway Beach, Queens. The church is currently operating as a volunteering center where donated goods and hot meals are being distributed to Rockaway residents. The solar array is providing power to lights, refrigerators, phone chargers, computers, and a temporary medical clinic housed inside the church.

Consisting of 72 solar panels that measure about 20 feet by 60 feet, Fitzgerald and Van Haaren originally designed the portable charging station to power an electric car and travel cross-country raising awareness about electric vehicles and solar power. They intend to start their so-called “solar journey” this summer but until then, have been storing the array in a facility in New Jersey.

“We immediately thought about doing something to help after Hurricane Sandy but didn’t have a contact,” said Van Haaren. “The panels were just sitting in New Jersey not being used. So why not put them to work?”

The two eventually reached out to David Gibbs, an expert in solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and a consultant on their Solar Journey project, who connected them to St. Gertrude’s. They plan to return to the area this week and keep the solar array stationed there for at least two more weeks.

“It was really awesome to be out there in the Rockaways and see just how many people are coming out to volunteer,” said Van Haaren. “In Manhattan, things are back to normal for the most part but out there—and it is not even that far from here—parts have really been destroyed.”

Added Fitzgerald, “We set out on this project to promote the use of solar panels and electric vehicles with a focus on education outreach. We’re really happy that what we’ve developed can have a direct impact on people’s lives right now.”

Van Haaren and Fitzgerald met at the Engineering School in 2008 as master’s students in the earth and environmental engineering department. Their planned trip across the US includes stops in 25 cities with Berkeley, CA as the final destination. The plan is to travel approximately 180 miles per day, which is as far as they can go before having to re-charge the electric car. To date, they have been able to nab a few sponsors for the project, including First Solar, Outback Power, Global Environment Fund, Columbia’s Center for Life Cycle Analysis, and Columbia’s Earth Engineering Center. They are still hoping to receive a sponsored electric car to use for the trip.

“Maybe even more important to us is that we want to make people aware of the resources they’re using,” says Van Haaren. “Nowadays, people are completely disconnected from the primary resources they use and what happens to the waste they produce. We believe that more public insight is needed about what goes on behind the scenes. What would make people appreciate more the perks they have from living in this era and perhaps prevent the unnecessary idling of car engines, cooling of unoccupied rooms, and the use of wasteful paper bags.”

The two have already demonstrated their solar panels at the September 22 Farm Aid Concert in Pennsylvania and as a participant in the Driving Congress Green event held also in September in Harrisburg, PA. Down the road, Van Haaren and Fitzgerald have plans to build a smaller, portable solar backup system—one that people can use to run their refrigerators, lights, phones, and laptops.

-Melanie A. Farmer

500 W. 120th St., Mudd 510, New York, NY 10027    212-854-2993