The historic city of Lahaina, located on the western coast of the Hawaiian island Maui, was devastated by wildfires on August 8 that descended from forested hills into neighborhoods and the waterfront town. At last count, more than 100 people died in a blaze stoked by the winds of Hurricane Dora, with more missing and even more displaced from their homes.
When the fires ceased, Hawaiian residents from Maui and neighboring islands traveled to Lahaina to assess the damage of the burnt city and to support those affected by the destruction. Among that first group to respond were local solar contractors Rising Sun Solar and Sunrun who, with assistance from the nonprofit Footprint Project, tapped personal inventory and equipment suppliers to build mobile power units running Starlink internet to re-establish communications for people in Lahaina. They have also built off-grid solar arrays to power temporary community hubs until a more permanent housing solution is built.
RevoluSun, a solar contractor based in Oahu, is also helping with early recovery efforts for Lahaina. RevoluSun is providing solar and battery installation for a temporary community of prefabricated homes being built to house people displaced by the wildfires. SPW spoke to Eric Carlson, co-founder and chief innovation officer, and Josh Powell, CEO of RevoluSun, about this off-grid housing project, the state of Lahaina and the role of a solar contractor as a first responder.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
SPW: As a business, you need profits to maintain operations, but as a solar company, your business exists, in part, to combat the very real threat of climate change. Given RevoluSun’s position at that cross section of business and environmental concern, how did it feel having a historic natural disaster like this happen so close to home?
Eric Carlson: The proximity equals a level of emotion, and this is right in our backyards. Friends and family were affected that we know personally. We’re 48 miles away, but it’s right in our backyard. We were just talking about the business, talking about the fire, talking about ways that we’re helping out and the fact that we, being in this industry, have the means and technology and the knowhow to have a meaningful effect on the Lahaina community — [this] helps push us forward and not get bogged down by all the heavy weight. So, that’s been really helpful for us knowing that we have impactful change deployable at all times.
Josh Powell: I think climate change is at the core of our purpose for doing what we do. You can only go so far with a small business without making a profit. Fifteen years on the coaster we’ve certainly seen plenty of ups and downs. But we’ve always thought about, “How can we be better prepared for natural disasters when they occur?” And I think we think of them mostly as being hurricane-based disasters in Hawaii. I come from Idaho; I’ve been watching forest fires since I was a little kid and thinking about it, and how we build there. I’ve never once thought, “Oh, I should be careful about wildfires in Hawaii.” And I think it’s shocking to everybody. As Eric was saying, this is so much more concentrated of a disaster than any hurricane ever would be in terms of just how many people died. I mean, it’s just horrible — how many people are missing who will never be found.
We use the term “false crack” in Hawaii. Someone maliciously comes up from behind and smacks you in the head and it’s a total blindside. And yet, it’s the same thing that we’ve been thinking. We should be ready for this, because we can do a lot when people don’t have power or people don’t have infrastructure.
Carlson: I had an opportunity to drive by Lahaina and look at some of the mobile power stations that were deployed there by the local community installer base there. It was like I’ve never been to the west side of Maui before. I’ve been there dozens of times in my life, I was born and raised here, but driving there and leaving — you really can’t put it into words.
SPW: Can you describe the project you’re working on and what it’s going to entail?
Carlson: A former team member at RevoluSun reached out to us and said that there was a temporary midterm housing solution in development and was wondering if we were interested in participating, and we absolutely said, “Yes, we’ll jump right in,” not really knowing. The project in itself is a 150-unit village made out of a company called Continest that has these rapidly deployable houses that come in the same footprint as a shipping container.
You lift them in a matter of minutes, the walls kind of accordion out and you can configure them as double-wide and triple-wide. There’s a master village being put in place where these will be set up into 88 individual units, and each one of them will have an outdoor “lanai” (veranda) for privacy and modular stick frame sheds that will be their bathroom, shower and kitchen. You have the modular unit as their main living space, you have an outdoor lanai and then they have this attached kitchen, shower, bathroom, and then we’re powering all of that with solar and battery.
There’s been a number of additional services provided to all those that live here, getting them back on their feet. So, it’s just a beautifully well-thought-out master plan community that is happening in phases, and RevoluSun has offered to power the entire community. The site does not have power to it, and it would be too costly to bring the power to the site and the drops to each of these units, and so it’s much faster, much more efficient for us to do it via solar and storage. We have our friends Rising Sun on Maui that will be helping as they can provide the boots on the ground installation services, and we’ll be out there as well. Our team out in Oahu is chomping at the bit. They all keep asking us, “When can we go and help?” So, it’ll be both companies installing and doing all electrical.
SPW: Did you ever expect as solar contractors that your skills would be applied to an emergency like a first responder?
Powell: Yeah, we have. To be brutally honest, we’ve thought many times that we wish we had better resources so that we could harden our warehouse; we could have greater inventory. We worked through COVID, and Hawaii rightly made our workers emergency workers. Power wasn’t an emergency there, but it was really obvious that that was really important for the team, and so we’ve always felt like our folks have got to be ready to go and we want to have adequate facilities and equipment to really do that. We’d be really damn lucky if our warehouse made it through a hurricane. As we continue to grow as a business, we will always fold that capability into what we do, because it’s clear we’re going to be needed more and more.
Carlson: Last week, a couple local installers and a couple distributors got together for breakfast to kind of take a pause and connect with everyone about Maui, because we’ve all been texting each other nonstop on what kind of inventory you have or what do you need help with. Really, just to sit down and say, “Hey, look, we did a good thing and we really proved our capabilities and we should form a group that is ready for the next natural disaster.” So, we’re in the early stages of that and it’s fluid and we really only had one conversation, but everyone agreed.
Powell: This is a heavily Native Hawaiian community, and so the mistrust is deep. This is a group of people who don’t even have a treaty and for 100 years have been unwilling to accept a relationship with the U.S. government, and for good reason, because their autonomy and their rights were taken. When you’re thinking about how you’re going to do this in Hawaii, it’s got to be from the community. It’s got to be embedded in your community. We had people in boats headed over from the east end of Molokai immediately that next morning who knew more about what was going on in Lahaina than the state or the country did to some extent.
The ’Ohana Hope Village housing community is accepting donations to support its construction.