Solar Powers Occupy Wall Street

Photo by GRACELINKS on flickr

Never before has an old, beat-up Isuzu truck received such a warm welcome.

On a late night in early October, “Rolling Sunlight,” Greenpeace’s mobile solar power center, pulled up to the curb near Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan and hooked up its power to Occupy Wall Street.

Off went the gasoline-powered generators to huge applause.

The ten-year old bio-diesel -powered truck, driven by Robert Gardner and Jesse Coleman of Greenpeace, weighs in at a hefty 9 tons thanks to a 2 kilowatt solar array and numerous batteries that store 50 kilowatt hours of sun-generated electricity; enough to power entire homes.  Rolling Sunlight managed to stand out even in a crowd of news vans, police squads, and, oh yes, a thousands-strong protest.

“I lost my voice while I was there,” Gardner says of his chats with hundreds of curious onlookers who came by the truck to get a closer look.  “I explained what the truck was and how it’s important to put solar up on our roofs.  It wasn’t necessarily there as an anti-corporate message, it was really there just to help. It shows one of the important roles that clean energy and solar energy can provide, and I think people got that.”

For four days the live video and various other digital updates from the Occupy protest were powered for a worldwide audience by Rolling Sunlight’s solar power.  The juice did run out after the fourth day, however, thanks to a bad location under sun-blocking office towers and some malfunctioning inverters.

Currently back in Washington D.C. for repairs, the truck will soon be heading back up to the protest site, ideally with the city’s blessing.  Gardner is currently in talks with NYPD community relations to ensure a semi-permanent location so that protesters don’t have to rely on gasoline-powered generators and their associated safety and public health problems.  “It’s in everybody’s interest to let us park, run a power line, and we'll be out of the way,” says Gardner. “We're there to provide electricity in a service role.  We can cut down the amount of time that they're using gas powered generators, and everybody wins in that equation.”

As its scratches and dents can attest, Rolling Sunlight has been all across the country, not to mention a recent two-year stint in Mexico.  Gardner was particularly fond of a South Carolina to Maine tour as part of Greenpeace’s Coal Free Future campaign. “That was an absolute highlight, one of the most fun things I've done in my life.  The truck is one of the most effective campaign tools we have.  Especially when it’s grey and gloomy and icy and we're still pumping out electricity. People are saying ‘Wait I thought solar was intermittent?' But no, you can store it when you've got batteries.”

That solar message has been brought to countless local events by the truck, from powering up the lights at the iconic Coit Tower in San Francisco to providing free electricity to a street festival in D.C.  Along the way, the solar panels have been replaced as necessary, such as when a sand storm in Utah ripped one off of the truck, while layers of paint have been coated on the exterior and multiple-language graffiti has been lovingly penned on the interior.

Gardner hopes that the one-truck fleet can be expanded soon. “One thing we're talking about is being able to provide disaster relief.  We're looking at how we could provide large amounts of power, using solar and wind energy on a mobile platform, so we'd be able to go to places – no press releases – just purely in an altruistic manner so we can help people out.  As climate-inspired or climate-caused severe weather events become more frequent, access to power is becoming a problem.  Relying on diesel generators, when in large part fossil fuels have caused the problem, seems a bit nearsighted.”

In the meantime, Rolling Sunlight is getting its needed tune-up before its return to Occupy Wall Street.  Just as Gardner and others at Greenpeace were inspired by the protests in Lower Manhattan and decided to drive the truck up to help, people are inspired by the chance to see solar panels up close and powering an event with worldwide reach.

Solar panels just need some exposure to the sun…and the public.  As seen at Zuccotti Park, applause soon follows.