Power disappeared from New Orleans after Hurricane Ida in 2021, Louisiana’s most devastating hurricane after Katrina. All eight transmission lines collapsed, leaving more than a million in southeastern Louisiana without power, all in extreme heat; in some outskirts of the city it has not been restored for almost a month. This hurricane highlighted the fragility of energy supplies in times of crisis – especially for the most marginalized.
Better protecting New Orleans’ low-income communities during storms will be a new priority for the Honnold Foundation, a charity founded by rock climber Alex Honnold. He is best known as the first person to scale the sheer surface of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a harness, which was documented in the Oscar-winning film Free Solo. His organization is focused on expanding solar energy in overlooked corners around the world. Now, with a donation from Salesforce, the foundation will provide solar power to minority-owned restaurants in New Orleans so they can be converted into community centers during the hurricane recovery.
The Honnold Foundation was established in 2012 to broaden a plethora of environmental issues, but the team kept coming back to solar in particular. “A lot of it just comes from my personal feeling that access to energy is one of those basic human needs,” says Honnold, who had just returned from a climbing expedition in Greenland. Almost a billion people in the world have no electricity; About half the population of the world’s least developed countries have no electricity. “From a development perspective, I believe that energy access is where you can really start to plug into the modern world,” he says.
We might think that solar power is a way for wealthy people to save on energy bills, but it’s also a way for the poorest to access electricity in places where the grid doesn’t reach. “It will never be economical to lay power lines thousands of kilometers in Africa,” says Honnold.
Solar energy decarbonizes the grid, but also offers humanitarian benefits. If you only do it for sustainability reasons, it is cheaper to simply plow over fields and planting plates. “That helps shareholders and some utilities,” he says. “It doesn’t help actual communities.”
Instead, the foundation has focused on access to the sun in the developing world; Over the past 10 years, it has awarded grants to 44 partners in 20 countries, territories and tribal areas, many of which also provide ancillary benefits such as increased clean water, health care and Internet access. It has provided power for indigenous schools in Guatemala, for home lighting in Malawi and Ethiopia, and for canoes for the Achuar people of Ecuador, helping to connect communities and preserve rainforest habitats.
Though not a developing country, Honnold’s new US project will help underprivileged communities. Specifically, it will partner with Feed the Second Line, a New Orleans nonprofit that creates a safety net in support of the city’s distinctive cultural creators — its Second Line musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, and Baby Dolls — bringing joy to residents and tourists, but are underpaid for their work. It started at the height of the pandemic, with the group buying groceries for older workers to reduce their risk of exposure and scrambling for gig work to help artists make ends meet. During Hurricane Ida, the charity delivered ice, coolers and meals to the elders they serve and repaired 150 roofs across the city.
But as Ida showed, power comes first in disasters. Through its new “Get Lit, Stay Lit” program, Feed the Second Line aims to provide solar power to three minority-owned restaurants in Crescent City. It will install solar panels on the roof of the restaurants and supply batteries. It’s already started with Queen Trini Lisa in Midcity, and two more are to follow, including a Jamaican restaurant in Gentilly called Afrodisiac.
These solar microgrids would power refrigerators, charging stations, and chilling stations, giving residents in low-income, mostly black, neighborhoods who have run out of electricity access to groceries, ice, and chargers. They essentially became mutual aid clubs where people could come together and share information to aid in recovery. Restaurants would be the “first responders,” the charity said in its grant application, all with the added benefit of clean energy.
It’s an urgent program. Hurricane season is fast approaching, with 18 named storms forecast for the Gulf region. Although this differs from a previous forecast, storm seasons will continue as climate change worsens. The idea is that solar panels would withstand hurricanes better, as they are believed to withstand winds of up to 140mph – although Ida endured winds of 150 and hit highs of 168. Still, the modules proved stronger than traditional power lines in both Ida and Puerto Rico’s María, although they lost some of their capacity.
The organization needs funding to do this, and this is where the Honnold Foundation and its supporters came in. From approximately 2,000 applications from 100 countries, the foundation reviews and selects approximately 15 to 20 projects each year dedicated to both improving access to the sun and increasing social and economic justice for specific underserved communities. This year around 20 projects will be funded with 2 million US dollars. “There’s a huge pipeline of good ideas like this, and we’d like to see them all implemented in some way,” he says.
To make New Orleans’ plan a reality, cloud-based software company Salesforce is donating $100,000 to fund the three-restaurant pilot. “[Feed the Second Line] is just a great example of an organization using solar power to do real community work,” said Naomi Morenzoni, vice president of philanthropy strategy at Salesforce. It is part of Salesforce’s $100M fund for ecosystem recovery and climate justice; If the project is successful, there is an opportunity to expand it with further grants.
According to Morenzoni, Honnold’s “trust-based” philanthropic approach was a key draw for Salesforce, as the foundation allows beneficiaries autonomy to use the grants as they see fit in their communities, rather than dictating how they are used in a paternalistic manner must. “Unrestricted funding is the holy grail of funding,” she says. “Instead of having the grantees jump through a lot of hoops.”
For Honnold, this mentality is tied to his daily work on the towering bluffs and cliffs, where trusting others is literally a matter of life and death. “You only climb with people you trust, and then you trust them with your life,” he says. He loves to see communities strengthened. “If you don’t trust them, then don’t work with them,” he says. “And if you trust them, just trust them absolutely.”