From insomnia to an off-grid power system; Hurricane Sandy relief; modern art; doctoral degrees and community clean energy projects; these engineers are tackling some of today’s pressing energy challenges. Rob van Haaren and his friend Garrett Fitzgerald, Columbia University engineering students, became unexpected heroes in post-Sandy Far Rockaway, Queens, NY when they brought solar-generated electricity to people in need.

It started when van Haaren couldn’t sleep one night and found himself thinking about flexible solar panels and an electric motorcycle. Ultimately, van Haaren and Fitzgerald hatched a plan to drive across the US with a solar-equipped trailer that could charge an electric vehicle to create zero-emission travel. “We would give talks about the technology along the way,” van Haaren told Breaking Energy in a recent interview.

“We had a couple iterations of the idea and had a trailer stored in NJ. When Sandy happened we were keeping our fingers crossed that the trailer would not be damaged by the storm. It was fine, but then we got a call from a friend saying Rockaway Beach had no power,” and could we use the trailer to supply a distribution center with electricity.

“This was a surprise for us and an opportunity to test the equipment in tough conditions,” van Haaren said. The pair brought the trailer to Saint Gertrude Church on Beach 38th St. on Rockaway Beach where locals used extension cords to access power. The situation turned into a full hurricane relief effort when they used the trailer’s solar panels and batteries to power the church’s annual Thanksgiving Day dinner.

“Power was out for about a month in Rockaway, but most people’s breaker panels were located in basements or on the 1st the floor and they got corroded from flooding. So even though the grid came back online people were waiting for electrical engineers to replace all the panels. We had the system set up for 3 or 4 months,” said van Harren.

After that, the Museum of Modern Art built a geodesic dome to give presentations about renewable energy, Rockaway resiliency and how people can protect themselves going forward. The Solar Journey USA equipment powered the MOMA’s dome as well.

“It’s interesting to show people we can power electric cars with our non-grid connected system, which we think is unique,” van Harren said. “For a stand-alone system, the most important thing is reliability. The inverters are connected to the batteries and change DC to AC current. We could generate 220 volts of AC current from a 48 volt DC battery and we needed this to charge a Tesla Roadster. The Outback Power source we used allowed us to do this.”

Read more about Outback Power on Breaking Energy here.

Equipment Specifications

Maximum Power Point Trackers sit between the panels and batteries to ensure the batteries don’t get overcharged or discharged too far, and they also make sure the panels operate at maximum output, van Harren explained.


“If directly connected to a battery, PV panels typically generate only that amount of power. MPPTs make sure panels generate maximum power. When powering the geodesic dome from MOMA, we had equipment sitting in rain and snow and did not have to do any maintenance, it operated continuously. Inside the dome it powered a refrigerator in a small coffee shop, a TV, lights and even a heater. Our system was powerful enough to supply all those loads.”

The system has a total solar panel capacity of 7.2 kilowatts DC from 72 panels. The Outback Power equipment is also capable of generating 7kW of AC power, either standard 110 volts or 220 volts, which is need to quickly power an EV.

Fitzgerald and van Harren are currently decommissioning Solar Journey and all its components are being turned into kits that NYC schools can use to teach students about solar power.

Next Steps

Garrett Fitzgerald recently got his PhD at the Combustion and Catalysis Lab (CCL) for his research on methane-hydrates and he currently works at Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute.

Rob van Haaren is a PhD candidate at the Center for Life Cycle Analysis where he researches grid integration of large scale solar power plants. He’s currently working on a startup company called Divvy, which is a crowdfunding platform for community clean energy projects. Divvy just completed funding for its first campaign, a green-roof-integrated solar project on a high school in the South Bronx.