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San Francisco Uses Solar+Storage to Make Emergency Facilities More Resilient to Disaster

Institute for Sustainable Communities's picture
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  • Mar 28, 2018

The Institute for Sustainable Communities recently released Resilient Solar: Powering and Empowering Communities, a report that shares the stories of trailblazing resilient solar projects in New York City, Baltimore, Duluth, and San Francisco, and connects readers to tools, resources, and lessons learned that they can put to use in their own communities.

This is the second of a four-part series telling how communities are using solar to become more resilient.

ISC is hosting a free webinar on April 5, about how Baltimore, New York, and San Francisco are using resilient solar to help underserved communities and be less vulnerable to disasters. Register today 


The City and County of San Francisco is acutely aware of the potential for disaster and the vulnerability of its residents due to the frequency and intensity of earthquakes in the region. Since 1979, the city has experienced four earthquakes with a magnitude of six or greater, and studies show that an even stronger earthquake is likely to occur within the next 30 years.

The city also anticipates an increasing risk of disaster due to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, flooding, forest fires, and extreme heat.

In response to these potential risks, the City and County of San Francisco has been developing strategies to better serve communities and ensure access to basic services during emergencies in each of the city’s neighborhoods. Using resilient solar, San Francisco is advancing both the city’s energy and emergency preparedness goals and creating valuable tools and resources along the way.

San Francisco is studying how to incorporate resilient solar into emergency facilities. (Credit: SF Power)


In San Francisco, the effort to use resilient solar to support neighborhood resilience centers has been led by the City and County of San Francisco Department of the Environment, in close collaboration with several other city departments, including Public Health, Emergency Management, and the Office of Resilience. With technical support from ARUP, a national engineering firm, as well as a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Market Pathways Program, the City and County has worked since 2016 to create tools, resources, and a resilient solar roadmap to plan solar and storage projects that they hope will one day serve each of the city’s 11 districts.

San Francisco has been working to create a model planning process to identify and plan for resilience centers throughout the city and serve as a template for other cities that want to implement resilient solar on community facilities.

As a first step toward identifying sites, San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, Department of Emergency Management, and other agencies mapped buildings that are part of an existing disaster preparedness plan, those with critical power needs should a disaster strike, and opportunities for a cluster of buildings to be served via a microgrid. The resulting map featured hundreds of facilities, including shelters, fire stations, health facilities, and schools. Some of the facilities mapped already had solar panels, but many lacked back-up power of any kind.

A location for a solar resilient microgrid in San Francisco, with three shelters.

Using the map, the city, district supervisors, and neighborhood empowerment networks collaborated to determine which sites would best serve the most vulnerable populations as resilience centers. After selecting a dozen facilities to serve San Francisco’s 11 districts, the city has been working to create detailed plans for the first four representative resilience centers: a high school, marina, recreation center, and health center.

At each location, they determined the feasibility of installing solar+storage and determined the critical power needs for each building. An important step in this process was thinking about how a building would operate in an emergency. Working closely with emergency management staff, the team considered how the building would function and how much energy would be needed to meet those functions in an emergency.

For example, the Thurgood Marshall High School also serves as an emergency shelter in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. The school is equipped with an 87 kW solar array but currently has no source of back-up power. Using the tool, researchers found that adding a 63 kW/250 kWh lithium ion battery could satisfy the critical loads during a disaster. A detailed case study is included in the Solar+Storage Roadmap.

In November 2017, the city released its Solar+Storage Roadmap, which documents the entire project from stakeholder engagement to identifying project sites. They also published a best practices guide, a truncated version of the roadmap that shares lessons learned and strategies targeted specifically toward other municipalities exploring resilient solar. Both documents were heavily informed by the city’s experience planning its first four resilience centers.

The project also developed, a free online calculator created to calculate the size of solar panels and batteries needed to ensure a building has enough power to run critical loads during emergencies. The calculator allows building owners, energy professionals, and city departments across the country to develop preliminary solar+storage equipment sizing estimates on a portfolio of buildings so they can incorporate optimum scenarios into their energy resilience strategies.


One important outcome of this work has been the relationship that formed between those working on the city’s clean energy programs and the emergency management department. Resilient solar is now a strategy being included in the city’s emergency management plans.

Together, these departments are now working to raise capital for further project implementation by engaging their capital planning department, philanthropic donors, and exploring grant opportunities.

This excerpt is from Resilient Solar: Powering and Empowering Communities, a report produced by the Institute for Sustainable Communities with support from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, The Kresge Foundation, and The JPB Foundation.

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