How to Finance MicroGrid and Green Building in Disaster with Will Heegaard
“It’s really exciting to think about what could be done when the generator is not the problem.” –Will Heegaard
Rebuilding a community after a disaster is a lot like building a house. You have to make sure that the foundation is strong and secure, and you have to make sure that you’re using the right materials for the job. The best way to do this is by rebuilding back with green energy in mind.
However, many people reason that this is not a practical step as green energy sources like solar generators can get expensive. But is it really?
Green energy is clean, renewable, and sustainable—and that means it’s more resilient than traditional power sources like coal or nuclear plants. And because it’s kinder for the environment, we’re actually helping fight climate change, which reduces the intensity and frequency of disasters we experience. So in effect, rebuilding with green energy is more cost-effective in the long run.
However, having sufficient funds can be hard for a disaster-stricken community. So how can we finance this big project?
In this episode, Jennifer interviews Will Heegaard, the Operations Director of Footprint Project, a non-profit organization that brings sustainable power generation to disaster affected communities.
Listen in as Jennifer and Will talk about what microgrids are, how they can be a great tool for disaster response, and how to get the funds needed for these projects. They also discuss the gaps in the disaster response space, how we can break the negative loop of causing another disaster, how we can normalize green energy in the community, and Will’s advice to find motivation in moving towards progress despite huge challenges.
- 01:47 Building Back Greener with Footprint Project
- 10:04 Footprint Project’s 3 Power Up Programs
- 17:33 Equity and Rebuilding Greener
- 27:22 Break the Negative Loop
- 35:41 Benefits of Cleaner Power Systems
- 44:57 Climate Resiliency Programs
- 51:59 Helping Normalize Green Energy
- 55:52 Something Better
If we are looking to recover and rebuild better, green energy is the way to go! It’s not only more cost-effective, but it also helps prevent another disaster from happening. Learn how to build back greener with @JenGrayThompson and @footprintprjct‘s Operations Director, Will Heegaard. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season4 #HowToDisaster #funds #microgrid #solargenerators #greenbuilding #greenenergy # buildbackgreener #equity #hybridgenerators
06:44 “There’s a couple key gaps: one of it is money-based, one of it is awareness-based, and one of it is on-site training.” -Will Heegaard
07:25 “Magical thinking is not great preparation.” -Jennifer Thompson
09:45 “A lot of people have very good ideas. But executing those good ideas is not something that’s common.” -Jennifer Thompson
19:46 “There is the equity lens on energy access. Oftentimes, we assume that this is something that we can export but really it’s learning from people that have experienced these challenges already and are building solutions for themselves.” -Will Heegaard
20:45 “Disaster reveals a lot of inequities.” -Jennifer Thompson
26:01 “We can’t solve everything. We just can’t— but we can do iterative progress.” -Jennifer Thompson
28:39 “Most of our disasters are climate related. If all of our help is going to cause the next (disaster), are we really helping? If we can’t figure out how to break it, we’re not going to make it.” -Will Heegaard
33:02 “Let’s just be honest about the harm that we’re doing as we try to help because no one helps perfectly.” -Will Heegaard
42:27 “There is an attachment to a place that people underestimate.” -Jennifer Thompson
42:51 “This piece of equipment is a new tool in the toolbox. It’s not necessarily replacing other tools.” -Will Heegaard
45:41 “It’s the body’s human infrastructure that we need to power with better, or use more sustainable sources.” -Will Heegaard
53:46 “It’s really exciting to think about what could be done when the generator is not the problem.” -Will Heegaard
William Heegaard is the Operations Director of Footprint Project, an organization that brings power generation to disaster affected areas, establishes microgrids, and uses novel ideas to respond cleaner and build back greener.
A registered paramedic, Will previously worked with International Medical Corps to deploy solar refrigeration in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, then deployed with Team Rubicon after disasters in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Puerto Rico. Will currently serves on the Board of the Minnesota Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (MNVOAD). He received his B.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
Connect with Footprint Project:
- Website: https://www.footprintproject.org/
- Facebook: https://facebook.com/footprintprjct/
- Twitter: http://twitter.com/footprintprjct
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/footprintprjct/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/footprint-project/
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We’re back for another episode of The How to Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine.
Today, our guest is Will Heegaard, the Operations Director for the Footprint Project. An organization that brings power generation to disaster affected areas, establishes microgrids and uses novel ideas to respond cleaner and build back greener. We’re happy to bring Will on the program today to hear from his experience, and we’ll touch upon the important subjects of micro grids in disaster response, how to finance it all in crisis management. As we know that when a disaster strikes, power infrastructure can be damaged and inoperable. The Footprint Project uses these opportunities to not only help the recovery go smoother, but also improve resilience and rebuilding. We’re glad to have you along for the show. And please, take a look at the description section to find out more about the Footprint Project or visit www.footprintproject.org. And if you liked this video or this podcast, please make sure that you take a moment to subscribe.
Once again, welcome to the podcast.
Will Heegaard: Hi, this is such a pleasure to be here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I’m really excited because I’ve been working in a disaster for almost five years. And one of the things that I’m really curious about is maintaining connectivity, power, all of those things, and you work in a very unique space. So can you talk to us about the Footprint Project?
Will Heegaard: Yeah. The Footprint Project is a small nonprofit. Our mission is to help communities build back greener after disasters by mobilizing cleaner energy to communities in crisis. So normally, that looks like offsetting, replacing or displacing single source fossil fuel generators in the fields for first and second responders, as well as community or mutual aid workers. So the neighbors down the street with mobile solar generators. And when I say a mobile solar generator, that can literally mean a truck box with a couple batteries, an inverter and some solar panels, up to some very, very fancy mobile micro grids that are either forklift double, towable or containerized. But really, at the end of the day, it’s just creating a different access or a way to plug in electrons and provide usable 120 volt AC power for disaster relief in areas that are most affected by climate disasters.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I want to really go through the definitions of everything that you just said, because some people will know it, some of that means, and some people know none of that means. But I’d really like to hear about the origins of the Footprint Project, like how did this come about?
Will Heegaard: Yeah. I’m happy to. I’ll start with the story, and then maybe we can go into the, I love talking tech, but I think the general concepts are relatively simple. So I’m gonna try to keep stuff, keep it simple as we generally like to say in disasters. We got started doing this, it really came out of some of the work I did after college. I got my paramedic license, did EMT and ambulance work, and then was deployed with the International Medical Corps as a logistics manager, and then a program manager during the Ebola outbreak. I came into a program funded by the CDC in Guinea, West Africa, and it was really, the grant was to support a lab clinic with generators, and then refrigerators, and training to store test, take blood samples to test for five diseases. So we were going to buy a generator, put in a fridge, train them to draw blood, train them to put that blood on a motorcycle, send it to Conakry where the national lab would test it and then text them the results. That was the plan for the year.
“There’s a couple key gaps: one of it is money-based, one of it is awareness-based, and one of it is on-site training.” -Will Heegaard
I came into that program and we were looking at, alright, can we do a cash transfer or reimbursement program in five rural lab clinics for fueled power, the generator to power the fridge to store the blood. It was just this classic disaster power challenge. We had heard of solar powered refrigerators like I had heard that they exist. I had no really clue what they did or how much they cost. I asked our local logistics person to go out and see if there was a quote. He came back the next day, I remember it, with three quotes. All of the solar refrigerators were available in Conakry for installation that month, and they cost like $5,000, while the generator, plus monthly gas was like $2,000, and then a couple 100 bucks a month for the gas. That was assuming that there wasn’t weren’t going to be any problems with corruption, or getting the cash to the person, or just like all of those other things that could get weird and one of the poorest countries on the planet. So we went with the solar refrigerators, and I burned out after seven months. I left that mission kind of wondering why the grant was written that way in the first place, and why there wasn’t any incentive for response organizations to utilize more sustainable technologies in the field. And that kind of sent us down this rabbit hole or sent me down this rabbit hole of, why solar generators aren’t utilized in the domestic US, particularly for fire stations, or other large response teams for onsite power? It really comes down to the cost of the equipment is still high. There is a lack of awareness or understanding of how the equipment works, what it can do, how to use it, how to plug in, what to ask for as a responder. Even if you have the equipment, there’s a logistics challenge. The logistician that’s working the fossil fuel generator pro, supply chain at a firehouse in rural Houma, Louisiana right after Ida. They haven’t been trained on how to run a micro grid so there’s a couple key gaps. One is money based, one is wareness base, and one is just on site training. And so we started the Footprint Project to try to fill those gaps.
“Magical thinking is not great preparation.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really like it, by the way. I just want to say that having undergone a disaster and how I got started in this business, I had no idea how vulnerable our infrastructure was until it was taken out, until communication systems were down. There was no power and the air was filled with poison and smoke, and then you’re like, ah, looks like a lot of things that I took for granted, that would be an inappropriate preparation, magical thinking, it turns out is not great preparation. So I love that you took this really basic fundamental thing that people need, and then you turned it into a project, a nonprofit. So kudos to you. How long have you been around?
Will Heegaard: We started this, we found it in 2018. Most of our work through 2018 kind of 2020 was basically begging for free lithium batteries, and then cobbling those on to trailer frames or like portable boxes in a specific region, and then just deploying them as quickly as possible during a regional large power outage disaster. And then in 2021, that was really the moment where we got a little traction, I would say, where it wasn’t just kind of us doing it in my garage and stuff. But hurricane Ida was our largest deployment ever. We had a bunch of other companies kind of send equipment and jump in as partners. So that was really exciting. But yeah, it’s still really small in the sense that access to electricity, particularly sustainable electricity or more cleaner. You say it’s not clean, it’s cleaner. There’s always a cost. There’s just not that many solar generators out there, and particularly not very many that can do the things that responders need them to do. And there’s not many people that know how to drive them around to troubleshoot them. Plug in like it’s just, really, the mobile off grid solar battery game is a very, very, very small network of people.
“A lot of people have very good ideas. But executing those good ideas is not something that’s common.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I would tell you that I’m surprised, but I’m also surprised to find myself running the biggest and only nonprofit solely dedicated to wildfire. So in the United States, we know a lot of stuff, but are you sure they feel that way all the time. Really? Come on. Now, other people come on in. The waters warm, and the need is huge. That basic fundamental thing that I like so much. I’d love it if you would describe your deployment into hurricane Ida and then talk to us about the logistics of it. Because a lot of people have very good ideas, but executing those good ideas is not something that’s common. Nonprofits are also businesses, and you say you are delivering your service, but you’re also making sure that your business practices are appropriate to talk. So hurricane Ida happens, and then what?
Will Heegaard: Yeah. One that was our, by far the thing we got, we’ve gotten the most attention for so far. So I love to talk about it. I think it’s also kind of why we were able to do it is reflective of our general business model in which we’re trying. We’re still kind of working on it, obviously, but we have three programs. One of them is disaster relief. Deploy everything that we know that’s not just a single source generator to community resilient sites after disasters in a specific region. Second program is kind of in the early to long term recovery where we build new solar generators with repurposed electrical components, and get them ready in a region for the next disaster. And that usually looks like training, assembling new communities, accessible solar generators, and then deploying them for fun events. So either renting them to festivals or powering up a community, any event where we’re using a solar generator in an area is a resilience event to us. And then our third program kind of bucket is solar waste recovery. So we incorporate upcycled and repurposed electrical components, batteries, solar panels, inverters, although that tech that hardware, that large or larger solar companies might send to a landfill into these builds so we can build it for next to nothing, and then get a new system kind of in this fleet of Frankenstein solar generator. Things that are floating around.
So we were in Tennessee when Ida hit. We were there renting equipment to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, which is a pretty big kind of music festival there. And it actually got flooded out because we were setting up solar trailers to power these stages and some other spaces when the kind of the tail end or the hurricane kind of made landfall in New Orleans. We were talking to community partners there. And when they were like, yeah, the power is about to go out, we definitely will need this equipment. And we’re like, we’ll get there as soon as possible afterwards, we were still under contract so we couldn’t just grab everything and leave. But actually, the festival was canceled at the last minute because we got flooded. The whole camping farm space where it’s held, they couldn’t set up people, couldn’t set up tents, there was just massive amounts of mud, just raining for three days during the setup. We literally have photos and videos of us pulling these trailers in and then getting the announcement that it was canceled. This was like 48 hours after it made landfall, and we hitched everything up and packed it all up. We were driving to New Orleans within, I think I want to say like 18 hours of getting canceled. So then we took all that equipment out. We were there by Friday. The hurricane hits Sunday. We were driving in New Orleans on Friday. By that time, New Orleans was out of power for another couple days. In certain parts, it was longer. But we quickly learned that there was a lot more devastation and the power outage problem was more farther south into the Gulf. So we moved all the equipment that we had deployed from Tennessee. Just as we were driving in from Tennessee, we were doing the classic, getting building our site list, building our part, who are we talking to? Who’s requesting power? Who doesn’t have access to resources to buy a generator, pay for gas or do all these things? If the National Guard’s sending in gas, we’re going to the people that aren’t talking to the National Guard.
So we’re doing that as we’re driving down. We got a call from the disaster program manager at Tesla and he was like, we have palletized micro grids, we’re gonna send like, if we send these to you, can you help in New Orleans? Can you help us find these sites? And we were like absolutely sending them. And that kind of bubbled into our largest deployment today where we had our equipment that we deployed. Other companies said, oh, hey, I have solar. There were two solar companies in New Orleans that had solar trailers that were sitting around as kind of marketing pieces, and each one of those is a generator. So we grabbed those and brought those ways out that kind of just expanded off of our initial, we got our three units down and a bunch of portable systems. And once there was a little bit of a program or something to grasp on to for other companies to say, hey, I have this thing in my warehouse that might be useful. Can you guys deploy it? We became a team. They can say like, send us the spec sheet. Let’s not deploy trash. But if it can produce usable power and can prevent or offset another single source gas or diesel generator from running, let’s find a place to power it up whether that’s for a single Wi Fi hotspot, or cell phone charging station, or a mobile incident command center. This stuff ranges from very small, but very tactical up to very large, very expensive and very technical, if that makes sense?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It does make sense. And for those people who don’t know, even though we’ve talked about it on this program before, can you define what a micro grid is?
Will Heegaard: One, I think the definition of micro grid is still pretty loosey goosey. I’m gonna use my definition of a micro grid or our definition. We define a micro grid as an energy, a usable energy source that is producing regular electricity, usable electricity out of an outlet that pulls from multiple sources of production. So whether that’s the grid, or generator, or solar, or wind, or hydrogen, or nuclear, or whatever, pick a thing that produces power. You running on a treadmill, or biking, whatever, pulls from more than one source of electrical production and can store that power. So most micro grids have a battery or some form of energy storage. So we define it as a generator that has multiple sources of generation and can store power.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One of the things when my staff and I are talking about the work that we do, I’m always like, we’re not a social justice organization, we do equity, that’s really important to me. And equity for us looks like when we walk into a community, what did the people in front of us need in order to recover, rebuild and reimagine? The demographic of what that looks like changes dramatically dependent upon the disaster where it happens, what happens to all of those things. It occurs to me that very much the work that you’re doing has to do with something I love, which is doing equity, doing social justice. Can you talk about the need that you see out there, and how the Footprint Project actually fills that need?
“There is the equity lens on energy access. Oftentimes, we assume that this is something that we can export but really it’s learning from people that have experienced these challenges already and are building solutions for themselves.” -Will Heegaard
Will Heegaard: Yeah. I think what we didn’t really know going into this little thing that has become something slightly bigger. We didn’t know the people that would be using this equipment or requesting it oftentimes do not have access or cannot find, they’re not the ones who were the backup generator in the first place. There’s a lot of people out there that do not have the money to buy a generator when the grid goes out, much less fill up the gas tank, much less stand in line or drive their car to get gas, wait in the line and then drive back. And those are the people that are often the ones that either die or know someone who has died because of either lack of access to electricity during a critical power outage. Medically vulnerable folks, folks that rely on all of these medical devices or insulin storage for refrigerators, all these things that people just don’t have the resources to fill that energy gap. And we often talk about energy access as an international problem.
The reality is that the US has some of the worst power outage problems of any developed country. And a lot of what we are doing is not, we’re not sending this stuff to West Africa, we’re deploying it to southern Louisiana. You know what I mean? A lot of what we’re doing is taking technology and these solutions that are being developed in Africa, in places where the grid is not, where the telephone poles are not set up and won’t ever be set up. Taking that tact and those solutions that the quote unquote the developing world are building and applying them to our local domestic power added challenges. I think I don’t know what I’m trying to get out here, but there is the equity lens or whatever we want to call it on energy access. I think we often assume that this is something that we can export. It’s learning from people that have experienced these challenges already and are building solutions for themselves, finding ways to connect the dots between other folks, really next door, or down the street from us that do not have the access to most of the resources that we found by we, myself, you and other people that can afford to get in their car and drive, or get out, or buy a Tesla, or whatever.
“Disaster reveals a lot of inequities.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You don’t have to have the perfect answer for it, that is actually the perfect answer in my brain. Because that’s why we talk about doing rather than talking about it. Because what we see, disaster sort of reveals a lot of inequity. In rural America, even in rural California, you can own land, and you can live off of $25,000 a year as long as you don’t have a mortgage for that land. Or even if you do, it can be very low because most people think of California, they think of San Francisco, Los Angeles, where I live, Sonoma County, exorbitant land value. But a lot of California, that’s not the case. In a lot of America, that’s not the case. So people can’t exist, but then a disaster comes through. And in our case, a wildfire, which is different from wind and rain. All of a sudden, their houses were gone, the forest around them where they got their heating supplies also gone. And now, they’re just another person in America who’s trying to live off $25,000 a year, and they’re homeless. This is our inequity. Our vulnerabilities are revealed by disaster, but they were there before too. And so when you come in with a solution for them, I really love that. I also love the conversation that some things that we think are for other countries like, oh, we’re benevolent America. We are a very benevolent country with the idea that we don’t have huge needs around sanitation, energy access, and food security right here at home. It’s just an incorrect notion. It’s why I swiped for my younger son, like we’re taking him all around America during high school. I’m not taking him to Africa because I know there’s a need in Africa, and we’ll get there. But I want to also show him that we have a lot of things going on here that have to be addressed. And it’s ideas, executed ideas, not just thinking about it, but executed ideas like yours that will actually get us there, which is why I wanted to have you on the podcast today because I really, I really do.
Will Heegaard: Well, I appreciate that. I think we’re learning a lot as we do this. Every one, every disaster has different needs. We sent some of the equipment that was deployed during Hurricane Ida up to Kentucky during the Kentucky winter storm. We were trying to get back home to Minnesota for Christmas, and it happened that it was like, as we’re about to leave, the Kentucky winter storm hit. We had all this equipment that had been mobilized from southern Louisiana, power came back on the churches, or the community centers or whatever said, hey, we don’t need this anymore. Can you get it out of our parking lot, trying to church again. It was staged and we said, set it up. It was cold, it was raining for a lot of the week. The tech is only going to solve it to a point like it’s the right direction. But you’re not going to run a community center or a school for a deep freeze disaster off of a solar micro grid. Unless you have a $2 million containerized battery system that you can deploy within 20 minutes or whatever, two hours, it’s not feasible. I think kind of coming up against this, hey, what does the professional response look like? What did the firefighters need versus how do you deploy equipment for a community that might not have any of that? Their fire department isn’t around, or the low income old folks home that has water on the floor. Maybe we’re not going to be able to get the building on, but if we can get a small battery pack or a battery library set up outside the building, then they can charge their phone and run their nebulizer at night. It’s kind of sucks when you know that we’re supposedly–
“We can’t solve everything. We just can’t— but we can do iterative progress.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I don’t think that sucks though. The thing is that we underestimate, we undervalue iterative help and iterative processes actually can get us to the other side. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be asking for the $2 million solution. Yes, ask for that for sure. But when there is nothing for you and your phone has died and you have to communicate with your family to tell them that you’re going to be okay, or they can check on you, communication is such a critical need during a disaster for emotional reasons. And for practical reasons, I often think about this documentary that I saw about Paradise. We’ve been working in Paradise about 8 to 10 days post disaster, but I’m a firefighter. His wife left to take the kids to school, and then he left to go to work in the morning. And because wildfire takes out all of the cell towers and power, then for the next eight hours, he didn’t know if his wife had made it, and she didn’t know if he made it. One of those things that can be solved. We can’t solve everything. We just can’t, but we can do iterative progress. We can show proof of concept for something smaller. I think it builds a leverage for the $2 million. I have to pause here for a commercial break, and we’re going to come right back.
All right, and we’re back. Just to get back to what I was saying before we went to commercial break, express frustration, I totally get that. I caution you against downplaying the value, especially to the people who’ve just undergone a disaster of showing up with a way to say, hey, I’m going to help you call your family, and I’m going to help you with your medication. But what’s your big dream for this organization? I have a feeling–
“Most of our disasters are climate related. If all of our help is going to cause the next (disaster), are we really helping? If we can’t figure out how to break it, we’re not going to make it.” -Will Heegaard
Will Heegaard: That’s really one kind. I think the reality is that most of what we do is charge phones and run small chest freezers and mini fridges like that’s the bread and butter of this from a technical standpoint or electron standpoint. It’s really easy to run, charge cell phones, run small laptops, Wi Fi hotspots, anything, small communications devices, super doable with a solar generator. Then once you get up to small scale refrigeration, AC gets really tricky if you’re doing air conditioning and heat is really hard to do off of the sole solar just batteries, no backup generator, fossil fuel generator. I don’t want to discount that work because it is critical. We do get that’s the stuff that makes us keep doing it. Seeing those stories of someone saying like, hey, yeah, I use your solar generator charger thing to power my electric wheelchair or charge my phone for my family when I got to talk to them. That keeps us going, you know what I mean?I’m shooting big on this whole thing. But we need to decarbonize disaster relief. The reality is, particularly in the domestic US, most of our disasters are climate related.
So if we put ourselves in a very tricky position, where if we’re using the problem as the solution, if we’re deploying, if all of our response is powered by fossil fuels, so we’re driving trucks, we’re getting on planes, we’re sending pallets of fossil, water bottles that are plastic, if all of our help that we’re saying we’re going to do is going to cause the next one, are we really helping? I think it’s slightly philosophical. But really, it’s getting more and more practical by the year. I think that everyone, particularly anybody that’s been through a wildfire, or who is preparing for this year’s hurricane season or wildfire season, there’s this kind of point where it’s like, how are we going to break this negative feedback loop? Because, oh, if we don’t, if we can’t figure out how to break it, we’re not going to make it. If we’re going to do the same thing over and over again, and the disaster is gonna get worse, and we’re gonna raise a bunch of money, we’re gonna buy a bunch of single source generators, and we’re gonna put a bunch of people on planes, and we’re gonna go over and give out candy bars and bottled water, help and then run all that stuff on the same things that we know we’re gonna cause the next one, what the hell are we doing? It’s definitely not gonna get better that way.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: If that’s an opportunity though, if you invert that, now speaking your language about inverters, I have very much that was an opportunity to make the case, though, for the solar for cleaner running vehicles. I do anticipate, especially with the big car companies and tech companies really sort of racing towards and abandoning fossil fuels. I think we’re actually going to get out a lot of this through the private sector more so than the public sector. You can incentivize, but then you reach up against it turns political and you’re like, this really isn’t political. The irony is not lost on me of anything you’re saying. Because when I started this job, I drove a Volvo, an SUV Volvo, not even a new one, quite frankly, and good rolling into middle America in my Volvo SUV made me a little unpopular. I had to trade it in. And now, I drive a Dodge Ram or Ram 1500 big ass truck.
Will Heegaard: I love big trucks, though.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love big trucks so much. Gave me one enterprise in Los Angeles because they’re like, oh, we have. And I was like, are you kidding? And then I got in and I was like, oh, this is great. So I totally love big trucks. And I love it, it does half the work for me with America. But I also really am looking forward to the day that I’m not constantly like, now I barely drive now because the carbon footprint is so high on that thing.
Will Heegaard: Use diesel trucks to tow solar trailers. The reality is that we’re just scratching the surface of what we need to do to make this transition.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We’re getting there. I think we’re all gonna hate on, just a couple of years, or within five to seven years, having an electric truck or a hybrid is going to be fiscally reasonable because trucks are intensely expensive. All of you out there who were like, oh, thank God that you’re more down home now that you drive a truck. Well, it costs three times my vote. Thank you so much. But that’s something that I see as an opportunity for you and for the entire space. I think I rarely hear your point of view brought up in disaster to decarbonize it, though, so I appreciate that point of view.
Will Heegaard: Well, thank you. I feel like I sound very, very depressing. I don’t want to sound super depressing. Because at the same time, it’s like, what the hell are we doing as responders if we can’t figure out how to do our job better and do less harm? Let’s just be honest about the harm that we’re doing as we try to help because no one helps perfectly right. We’re all fragile, broke, somewhat broken.We’re trying to help. But sometimes, we don’t do it right. Sometimes, we’re giving out candy bars to people that need cash. We can do this better. I think the response community as a whole needs a little bit more of a look in the mirror and realize it’s 2022, and we got to get better at what we’ve been doing for the last 60 years. But at the same time, there’s also huge opportunities for us, it’s rolling in even a small single solar panel in a small battery by a community center to power a little charging station. The quantitative effects of that are pretty negligible. You’ll charge some phones, maybe people will be able to get a hold of their loved ones. That’s great. But there’s the thing we can’t measure. We can measure how many people showed up to charge our phones or how much carbon we might have offset if we weren’t using a truck to deliver it. But yeah, because we don’t have an electric vehicle that can drive that far. But the qualitative effects, the conversations that start when someone says, hey, my neighborhood has just been completely destroyed. And as we’re going to talk to our representatives, I remember charging my phone off of that little solar thing. The little pieces of it that start the conversation around, okay, what does it mean to build back, and what do we want in our community when we’re building back after everything has been leveled or destroyed? Or that moment, I think is the real, the met where the magic happens. And if we can get those more sustainable or just better aid in faster, the ripple effects for the whole long term recovery process I think changes. And we’ve seen it happen where people are, people that would not have ever touched a solar panel, or ever thought of who don’t believe in global warming, climate, whatever all of this, they’re setting up these systems with us because they need electricity. And the difference is to set this thing up or stand, drive three hours in and wait two hours longer to get gas and then drive back. If they have the money to do it.
“Let’s just be honest about the harm that we’re doing as we try to help because no one helps perfectly.” -Will Heegaard
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And the money to do it every day. And there’s also the argument, like the sun is free.
Will Heegaard: Yeah. Even aside from those practical shoots, there are super practical logistical benefits of resilient or cleaner power systems, micro grids that have multiple sources of energy generation, whether that’s sun, wind, fossil fuels, whatever. There’s really practical benefits, but I think they are less like the ones we can’t track yet. But we kind of see them anecdotally. The conversation with the church leader that has been running their fridge off of a solar generator for two weeks, and then is interested in getting solar on the roof of their church before the next hurricane. There’s no other way. That person now has seen it, they’ve seen it work. Sometimes it doesn’t always work. But overall, I think that’s the reason we work on it. And I want to challenge the response community to do better, and particularly the domestic response community to look at the solutions that are working abroad and bring them back to serve our own communities. But also, the goal is to build, be more resilient. And so that isn’t just tact. It’s not just the next best perfect toy, it’s the conversation that gets started by bringing even a really small new toy into a space that has never seen a solar panel before. I’ve never seen one up close, never held one, never moved one around, and that’s an awareness thing. Some weird hearts and minds stuff that is very, very rewarding to do.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I want to get into two pieces. The first one is, I want to talk about qualitative outcomes because those are incredibly hard to measure as a nonprofit. But a lot of times, what funders want, they want inputs. I’ve been sort of railing against that a little bit like, well, what do you want me to do with these inputs? What would you like to accomplish if I give you these inputs? I’m happy to do so. What outcome are you trying to fund? And if the outcome that they want to fund is that more people have deep politicization, the clean energy market, that’s a huge one by taking the politics out of it, quite frankly. But having experience understanding that it’s easier, it’s more pleasant to stand near, there’s a whole host of pleasantries. You can come with solar, which doesn’t exist with fossil fuel generators, so asking you how many people charge their phone is probably not the best measure of that. What’s the larger opportunity? What are the communities that you’re serving? The five top communities last year, and that it’s slow. And that’s one of the things that there’s some immediacy to qualitative outcomes. But can you talk about that as a challenge to inform funders?
Will Heegaard: Yeah. To be honest, we’ve been a little lucky today. We haven’t had too much, like the people, the groups that are funding us, and the way we’ve gotten off the ground or kind of get it already. We’re trying to develop our metrics for ourselves. We want to know, hey, if we tow this solar generator 200 miles and then leave it for two months, was it worth telling it there in the first place from a carbon standpoint? To be honest, we haven’t had a funder. Really want to know that yet. We’ve been wanting to fund that research and get more reflective with, alright, maybe we shouldn’t deploy this. Maybe we should only deploy within 50 miles instead of 200 miles because the cost benefits environmentally from a footprint, whatever footprint standpoint is not worth it. But to date, we sadly have been trying to do that metric development ourselves without demand from donors yet. We’re trying to get ahead of it. I think the qualitative side, that’s where the reason we’re able to do this work still is because, to be blunt, solar companies like photos of their logo next to solar panels in front of a destroyed house. If that’s what it takes, so be it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Solar companies are going to be part of the solution. I don’t care if a utility wants to give me money or an insurance company, because it’s not going to affect my ethos at all. It doesn’t affect how I’m going to speak frankly or bluntly about what the problem is. They’re having a vested interest in the solution. It’s not necessarily going to be like H&M, a clothing company, not ever going to be interested in, I think it’s fine. What is sort of your plan, or do you have a plan or experience with wildfires?
Will Heegaard: Yeah. We’ve done a couple of wildfire responses, and they’ve been very, very small, to be honest. Our best, I’d say winds are in place, we have a solar trailer stage with Steamboat Springs Fire Department, and we deployed it out there a year ago, a little more than a year ago. And basically, it’s a free loan, like a long term. Hey, this is still our piece of equipment. Use it, tell us what you think about it, deploy it. We’re not like to sign our liability waiver, we’re not charging you for the use of this equipment. And they’ve deployed it to a couple of different wildfires to power incident command space in super remote regions. What’s really interesting, I think about that partnership in the tech, particularly with firefighters that do this, first response or wildfire response regularly is that when we talk to them, they’re like, we wouldn’t have done. One deployment was, the grid went out in Steamboat Springs in an RV park where community members, the poor people in Steamboat Springs, were trying to figure out how to help. And they brought the solar trailer over with some fridges and just left the fridges on site running. And it was just a community refrigeration station. Had some fans running there. The residents of the RV park were without power for like a couple months because there was a line issue with whatever, like a transformer or something. But they refused to leave because they had nowhere else to go.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: There is an attachment through to a place that I think people underestimate.
Will Heegaard: 100%. Yeah. And regardless of why they choose to stay in the heat during the summer. Well, we heard from (inaudible) Springs Fire Chief that they wouldn’t have run a generator to power community fridges for this in an RV park. This piece of equipment is a new tool in the toolbox. It’s not necessarily replacing other tools. Sometimes it is, but they wouldn’t have ever done that program, quote unquote, if they hadn’t had this asset. I think in traditional vehicles where we’re gonna see the use of vehicles change, maybe people want, maybe we’ll just all Uber all the time and they’ll be, whatever.
“There is an attachment to a place that people underestimate.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Apparently, yeah. Personal, impersonal, little personal helicopters.
Will Heegaard: So that’s one story that is, this is small stuff compared to something like a hurricane, either response where we had a long duration power outage. Hurricane hits, and then the relatively clear sunny skies for the time after and you’re going, the grid rebuild is gonna start in the major urban centers, but then trickled down to the real fingerling spaces. So we do have 11 solar trailers. Some of which are functioning, some of which aren’t in Northern California that are pre staged for wildfires. Our best responses have been with fire departments and we have one with Calaveras County that’s been used for the South Lake Tahoe fire. You still drop in the bucket for a fire camp right now. It’s not like we’re bringing in two megawatt hours of batteries and setting up a football field or solar panels to power the incident, a 2000 person fire camp, which is what should be happening. But we’re not there yet.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do think that’s where we’re headed though. I’ve seen a big change in how people talk about climate resiliency since 2020. Big change, huge change. I’m far less political, far, far less. I think far more as we undergo disaster after disaster, after disaster. I see it. I see it absolutely happening.
“It’s the body’s human infrastructure that we need to power with better, or use more sustainable sources.” -Will Heegaard
Will Heegaard: There’s really exciting movement at the federal level in the sense that the US Forest Service has a grinning fire team program. They’re looking at how to get it, it’s similar to pretty much the non fun version of Burning Man. Travel is huge, like it’s the same thing. They’re bringing in thousands of people, they need power, and they need water, and they need transport, and they need waste stream management. Literally, we use a lot of the festival, like sustainability metrics to kind of think through how to do rep larger camp, sustainability and disasters because it’s the same stuff. It’s the body’s human infrastructure that we need to power with better, or use more sustainable sources. Particularly in a wildfire space, there’s a lot of exciting things coming down the pipe, and the Federal procurement guidelines are starting to change. We’re not going to be the ones that are renting, I don’t think at scale to the US Forest Service. We’ll be helping you, will train, we can help get, we’re kind of like the try before they buy. Go play with this thing. Let us know if you need help, that type of stuff. Wildfires are tricky too because if it’s super smoky, we’ve tested it. A little bit of solar panels don’t work great. If it’s dark out during the day, you’re looking at a different program. It’s not a solar generator, you’re looking at an electric hybridized generator, which is still better.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s better. One of my questions is that, one of the differences in wildfires, wind and rain events is that wildfires, of course, we have terrible air quality and red skies. The Dixie Fire was three months. Quite a long time. But sometimes, you’re looking at a hybrid approach.
Will Heegaard: Yeah. We’re starting to get into commercial scale hybrid generator systems. We’d love to play in that game and be one of the brand tours of those systems, and then send them to the people that can afford to rent or pay. The US Forest Service can totally pay to rent them. We will only serve, we’re only there to subsidize these fire departments, these larger entities to the point where they adopt it. The American Red Cross should be doing this already. We’ll happily help them do it a little bit, but we’re not going to subsidize, we’re not going to greenwash their disaster program. You know what I mean?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Let’s talk about that actually, quickly. We just attended the Wildfire Leadership Conference in Colorado about a month ago for the Red Cross, and I’m meeting with their wildfire person next week because they are looking at moving from acute to chronic response. It’s a huge evolution of their services so we want to talk, we want to help them formulate their wildfire response. Walmart had the first disaster conference they’ve ever had in Bentonville about four months ago. I attended that because they’re one of our funders, and they’re very, actually, very nice Red Cross in Walmart. They were at the forefront. There was a team that was not there. If they’re talking about greener energy, which is more social justice, they have a big footprint for all that entails. It’s going to take those giants of the industry to adopt these technologies to get to normalize it in a way that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking to normalize it, making it accessible and not turning it into one more opportunity for a huge amount of waste. I actually hope that I was really helpful after that conference listening to Walmart and Red Cross have that discussion. So yes, absolutely. I think. And I’ve actually connected with ToolBank USA.
Will Heegaard: Yeah. We’ve worked side by side with him a couple of times in, I used to be a state leader for Team Rubicon and they would play together. The previous before I served Footprint, and yeah, I think there’s those great partnership examples that I think could make really, really practical benefits that don’t require a $2 million hybridized fancy generator thing. That cat will eventually build or is working out, there’s people out there that are going to do the commercial power space. And that’s fantastic. Just please tell it like, hurry up. But the more I think the more interesting kind of disaster programming pieces are how to transition all day. He installs electric chainsaws, very simple, there are electric chainsaws in Home Depot, right?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I own one. But they’re much more expensive. I got it for Christmas, and it’s 16 inch. I think it was like dollars, they’re expensive.
Will Heegaard: But if you’re running, if you’re paying for gas at $6 a gallon and you’re running 50 crews for six months, I think there’s that space, one, as long as you can align all of the, hey, it’s not just cost, it’s also the photo, it’s also the sustainability metric, it’s also the equity lens, you kind of got to get all of those things to get a holistic measurement of why you would spend 600 bucks on one chainsaw versus 200–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Which means that that’s, when I see the Red Cross in Walmart leading the space, not just in this space, but actually leading the space and their values like that, those are on the table we’re talking about. And I didn’t see that in 2020 in the same way, or 2018, or 2019. I am totally relatively new, and so it gives me hope. And I think that there are opportunities there. ToolBank USA is looking at doing a West Coast, have a deployment center, seems like a natural thing that I hope that you reach back out to them. They are just traveling with us in Colorado to learn, we’re working in the Marshal Fire. And then I’ve invited them, we’re going to New Mexico in a couple of weeks to work on that fire. And I think the more times that groups like ours, like nonprofits like ours actually join hands and work together and invite collaborative leadership, and that’s actually how we’re going to maximize our impact dramatically.
Will Heegaard: Oh, yeah. 100%. And I think like my dream kind of where we could fit or help is like guiding, we don’t have the budget or the bandwidth to put 100 solar generators into service through ToolBank, but we could help them think through what the right solar generator thing would be to offer with an electric chainsaw, or some other power tool recharging thing. I would love to get to the point. And maybe in a couple years where the funding, just throwing solar generators around like candy, you know?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: If you collaborate, though, and they have awesome national relationships. That collaborative piece where if you make those requests, because what you’re doing is much more hard infrastructure. I always say that what we do is much more soft infrastructure and we help communities by coaching local leaders on how to lead their own recovery. But we don’t have solar arrays for them. More often that we walk into communities together with both sides of the equation, I think the more successful we’re going to be.
Will Heegaard: Totally. I think it’s a great point. I think I will have to follow up.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. I’ve got to train my brain. I just did a podcast with him.
“It’s really exciting to think about what could be done when the generator is not the problem.” -Will Heegaard
Will Heegaard: I met him for the first time at National VOAD in Baltimore. It was really exciting. We visited the Atlanta hub, which was really cool once. But yeah, I think it’s really exciting to think about what could be done when the generator is not the problem. But the fun piece of the or the sexy piece of the disaster, no one stands around a diesel generator and checks their phone. It’s not a cool thing. It’s not definitely not cool to go to a camp party. Everyone kind of hides them. They’re all kinda required, needed but not wanted. It’s smelly, loud, it’s just an annoyance. And once you can flip that and think through, all right, this power piece could be the cool piece of the puzzle that adds value in all these different ways and is super photo operable. Everyone loves standing in front of a picture of a solar panel. It’s just fun.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Do you have equipment stored at–
Will Heegaard: Yeah, trailer.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. I’ve seen that. I have it on a video, I’m cool. Here’s what I love about this work is Chase in Sonoma County where I interviewed him because I liked the seventh generation rancher. He’s such a smart, dynamic guy, totally. So that’s how I came to find you. But then also, you have recently just met Trey for the first time in person. And then I was traveling with Trey just a few, four or five weeks ago, whatever it was. I really love the idea that we’re all taking our little piece, and we are trying to make it better in that corner of the world. And I applaud you for doing that. I will look forward to figuring out how we can be of service to your work, how intros. We can talk about some of that offline. I have two more questions in the time that we have. The first one is, is there something I didn’t ask you that you wish that I had asked you?
Will Heegaard: That’s a great question. No, I mean, I love talking about this work. You could have asked me literally anything. I think the question that we got to was, I think that very, very, we don’t always get in these conversations. Pass the numbers. What this does for communities, which I think is often overlooked. Everyone likes to talk about tech. I never had to explain once what a kilowatt hour is, which is a breath of fresh air for me. So yeah. Particularly, I think that’s also a statement on the tacky men that I also, generally, most of the people I talk to about this are white men that like to talk tech. So there’s an equity issue right there. Whatever that means. But I think, yeah, there’s a lot of pieces to this. But your questions about what does it mean, practically, I think, how it frames, or what it can do in the immediate phase. Not just practically, but also long, almost psychologically to communities. I see something that’s the future, to see a vision of the future in your neighborhood that was just toast, just completely devastated, have something to look at and be like, wow, that thing could be, this is why there’s still going to be something better here. It’s not just going to be pallets of water bottles and chainsaws worrying. That is the most exciting part, I think about what we need to do.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Disaster work is tough. I always like to talk a little bit. So when you do this work for a long period of time, it does take a bit of a toll. And if you don’t mind sharing with the audience, you don’t have to share anything overly personal. It’s totally your call. What keeps you going and helps you manage the actual stress of having a nonprofit that works in disaster?
Will Heegaard: Oh, the best question. One, I think I’m way past burnout at this point. Both myself, and I think that a lot of the people I work with would say that we’re over. There’s enough momentum to keep going, and we try to find the party. That’s why we do like doing events because as long as mass is going to be messier and get worse, and the climate change is definitely not going away. We’re trying to get through 2030. What about 2040 and 2050? This puzzle is getting really shook up. I think finding those moments of, even if it’s a small break, we got to take a night and listen to music at Bonnaroo. We were working there. But we got to enjoy a festival for the first time in a long time. You can point to exercise, or stop drinking, or whatever.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Start drinking, exercising and just whatever you’re gonna say. We’re not super preachy here. What are you actually doing? Because How to Disaster isn’t even proper grammar. What are you actually doing, because we all get the advice. Meditation does totally work. I agree with that. Breathing works and exercising does work. Drinking can work and can also be very bad. I would like to talk to people about what you are actually doing, which there’s not a lot of should.
Will Heegaard: I love that. Like one, thank you for ending with that because I’ve been doing this for not a ton of time, but almost a decade. aid. And it’s the same. You got to find those moments. And I think for me, thinking about the really long game helps, like doing a combination of emails about the real long push versus getting outside and bolting a solar panel on to something for me is just finding the balance between building something with your hands like running a change, whatever it is. Whether it’s exercise, like using a power saw drill to drill a bolt into a solar panel or build something new, really practical. Finding that balance with sending 100 emails in one day. Like, that’s where I find the enough energy to keep sending the emails or drilling another panel and do a stupid drop down thing to power something at a site. Just finding that oscillation like the balance between the practical and grinding, doing stuff that’s changed, keeps things moving. Otherwise, it’s like you’re writing emails for no reason, or you’re driving a truck 2000 miles for no reason. You gotta keep them, train them up and keep them moving.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Keep moving. Keep moving note, I think we are done here. I said at the very beginning, but can you give the audience that’s listening to your website again? Do you mind?
Will Heegaard: Oh, yeah, www.footprintproject.org. And yeah, please reach out.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So that was very enjoyable. Thank you. I learned a lot.
Will Heegaard: Thank you for hosting it. It’s cool. I’m honored to be a part of it.