In October 2012, EmPower Solar was on its way to a record year. Positive stories about the economic and environmental benefits of solar had radiated across New York, and EmPower had a full pipeline of projects, many of them for commercial clients.
When warnings about Hurricane Sandy surfaced, CEO David Schieren did what he always does when storms approach. He protected EmPower’s infrastructure. He sandbagged the doors. He lifted electrical equipment from the ground.
The company office was about two miles from shore, in Island Park, N.Y., and eight feet above sea level. Relying on experience from other storms, Schieren thought the office would be fine.
“The surge was just too powerful and too high,” Schieren says. The swell reached 13 feet, and water breached the office doors and eclipsed the desks. The storm destroyed $300,000 worth of documents and power tools, EmPower’s inventory of panels and inverters and six work trucks.
“It was devastating for us, mainly because the feeling of displacement and not having order in life is very discouraging,” Schieren says.
After the storm passed, EmPower needed to take action. Inverters inundated with salt water are in danger of arcing, which can start a fire. In the midst of destroyed offices and trucks, destruction and displacement, the company had to meet with 200 clients in the storm-surge area. They were at risk of fire.
Technicians set out in personal vehicles to ensure the safety of customers’ homes and businesses. In three days, workers found 40 submerged inverters, which were disconnected and repaired. Then the company turned attention to itself.
“We couldn’t do our installation work. We couldn’t finish our pipeline. Contracts canceled. We couldn’t sell,” Schieren says. “Certainly we were hurt and scarred, but there is a very big positive. There is a strengthening that has occurred.”
In the days and weeks following Sandy, Schieren’s staff transformed from solar professionals into salvagers and cleaners. Employees worked from “satellite offices,” which were, in fact, other team member’s homes. In what could have been a permanently debilitating crisis – as it was for many New England businesses – the team came together, united under the mission of EmPower Solar.
“My business partner, Greg Sachs, and I care very deeply about our mission,” Schieren says. “We believe that we’re working on a solution to improve the quality of life, to help us get through storms, to stabilize the grid. This commitment and passion comes through to everyone at the team. They know we have this singular vision, and they buy into it.”
“But also, our team inspired us with their dedication,” Schieren says. “All of our employees stepped up and demonstrated a special level of commitment that kept us going.”
Seven weeks after Sandy slammed ashore, EmPower returned to its rebuilt offices. New trucks arrived.
The company relied upon years of excellent customer service and established business relationships to keep its doors open and continue installing solar.
Schieren says he recognizes a few silver linings in his experience with Sandy. Broadly, the New York region is rebuilding in a more sustainable way. Resiliency is a major topic. Solar arrays are more often coupled with battery backup.
Even EmPower Solar is building for resiliency. Its new Solar Design Center includes panels and a battery backup, and it’s above the floodplain height. The company has also moved to become a paperless office.
New York is building in preparation for the next big storm with the help of solar contractors. The positive story about solar continues, and so does EmPower. SPW