By the time Greenpeace USA's solar truck, called Rolling Sunlight, rolled into New York's Howard Beach, Hurricane Sandy had deposited several inches of mud on the streets. Boats were wedged into houses. Every direction was pitch black.
"Everything was destroyed. It was completely desolate," said Robert Gardner, a coal campaigner and alt-energy advocate with Greenpeace who drove the truck from Washington, D.C. He remembers being able to see the stars in the sky, which was unusual in New York City.
Usually the 10-year-old truck, equipped with 2004-era photovoltaic panels, travels the country, touring college campuses and local events to demonstrate the potential of solar power and biodiesel. The photovoltaic panels fold out to 250 square feet and can generate the same amount of power that a typical American household uses, Gardner said.
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The vehicle has regularly encountered tough conditions. It's been ripped by sandstorms, snowed on and even attacked by a dissenter when it supported the Occupy Wall Street movement. Recently the trusty truck rolled up to utter devastation in Queens.
Gardner and a group of volunteers quickly got to work first in Howard Beach and then used the truck to turn a ravaged store in the Rockaways into a donation collection and distribution center. They ran electrical cords through the walls and plugged them into the truck's 50-kilowatt-hour system.
With the PV panels acting like a generator, Gardner said they were able to serve food to thousands of locals and provide a psychological boost by keeping lights on when it got dark.
Following the storm, the Rockaway Beach center distributed enormous volumes of hot food, canned goods and essentials like batteries, socks and blankets to residents. Eventually it became known as YANA, short for "you are never alone," Garner said. "An oasis in a very dark desert."