Podcast 024: After Maria – How microgrids are helping schools in Puerto Rico stay open during outages

Freeing Energy Podcast 24 banner image of children standing in front of a poster explaining microgrids

In this first of a special three-part series, Host Bill Nussey travels to Puerto Rico to visit with community leaders, teachers, and a team of energy specialists who banded together to bring resilient power to schools in the island’s remote mountain towns. The teams used an innovative local energy solution, solar microgrids, to lower the school’s electric bills and to make electricity more resilient against future mega-storms as well as the all too frequent shorter outages.

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After Maria: How solar microgrids are helping remote mountain schools in Puerto Rico stay open during outages.

In this first of a special three part series, Host Bill Nussey travels to Puerto Rico to visit with community leaders, teachers, and a team of energy specialists who banded together to bring more reslileint power to schools in the island’s remote mountain towns using an innovative local energy solution, solar microgrids, making electricity more resilient against future mega-storms as well as the all too frequent shorter outages.

Additional reading

Transcript

(intro clip) Ana Sophia Mifsud:
They weren’t prepared for the magnitude of the hurricane that came. As a result, they hadn’t prepared properly for the gravity of the storm.

(intro clip) Celines Pacheco:
It was like three or four days after the hurricane when we were finally able to get out.

(intro clip) Ana Sophia Mifsud:
The howling of the wind is something that many children talk about when they recount the hurricane. But really, I think a lot of the trauma for these children happened after the storm.

Sam Easterby:
On September 20th, 2017, category five, Hurricane Maria, slammed into Puerto Rico, plunging 3.4 million Americans into darkness, some for as long as nine months. No electricity meant more than just not having lights. The Save the Children foundation estimates that the children of Puerto Rico lost 13 million cumulative days of education because of Maria.

In this special three-episode series host Bill Nussey visits with community leaders, teachers, and a team of energy specialist who banded together to bring power back to schools in the remote mountain towns of central Puerto Rico, using an innovative local energy solution, solar micro grids, making electricity more resilient against future mega storms, as well as the all too frequent shorter outages. This is their story.

Sam Easterby:
First, we hear from the mayor of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, Ivan Marrero, and then, Celines Pacheco Lopez, an English teacher in Naranjito. This is the Freeing Energy podcast, and these are the personal stories from local energy champions and leaders in the world of renewable energy that are shaping our future.

Bill Nussey:
Thank you very much for your time to talk to me today. Tell me, what happened after the hurricane? What were the challenges, and how did the community respond? I think it’s just an amazing story about how the people of these communities in Puerto Rico have come together to sort of take care of their own their in the community. Those are my questions.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
It was a lot stronger than they expected. They expected just a regular hurricane, and they weren’t prepared for the magnitude of the hurricane that came. They anticipated something much smaller. And as a result, they hadn’t prepared properly for the gravity of the storm.

It was just a magnitude they didn’t expect. He has never lived through a hurricane of this size. They were expecting a hurricane that maybe was a category two or a category three. And so, after the hurricane, there was just complete destruction of the infrastructure of this neighborhood. The roads were completely closed. People were feeling extremely desperate in trying to communicate with loved ones around, because all the communication infrastructure had also been damaged by the storm. And so, people were literally walking between towns, trying to get in contact with their loved ones in the midst of the rubbles and the downed wires.

But everyone went to the streets right after the hurricane to try to support in whatever way they could, the reconstruction of the town. He describes it as everyone was supporting with their little grain of sand in whatever way they could. People were taking to the streets to try to clear the streets as much as possible, trying to, if they could, help support some of the down wires, and move them from the streets.

Some people were even supporting the local government with private resources that they had in their homes, generators, or food, or water, that they had privately, in order to support bringing up this local municipality. Neighbors were supporting other neighbors with water, food, and not only keeping them in their local communities, but also reaching out to communities around to see how they could support their neighbors.

Bill Nussey:
And how long did they not have electricity for, and what was the biggest challenge that created?

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
The town spent about three months without electricity, and there was a small part of the central of the town where the hospital is located, that got electricity within two months of the hurricane. And that was the first part of the town that was electrified.

The biggest challenge after Hurricane Maria had to do with water. Many of the water infrastructure was not working, but also he describes the community as being completely in the dark after Hurricane Maria. And fortunately, everyone behaved, and there were no criminal issues after Hurricane Maria. They had a curfew of 7:00 PM throughout the island, And in this municipality, and he said for the most part, everyone respected the curfew, and no one was having issues with burglaries, or other types of criminal activity after Hurricane Maria.

Bill Nussey:
How did they get the water working again?

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
Water took about 20 days to be established in the communities, and it was mostly thanks to FEMA generators. And so, FEMA came after the hurricane and they helped identify what the key wells and pumps were, and so, FEMA supplied generators for these pumps in order to reestablish the water supply in these communities. That was a little bit faster than the electricity generation, thanks to diesel generators from FEMA.

Bill Nussey:
The first use of the diesel generators was for water. It makes sense. My last question, I’ve heard from my friends that this community came together better than so many others, and they really worked together to solve this as a community. What is it about this community that made that so special?

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
He attributes it to the childhood education of what he calls an [foreign language 00:06:19]. The rural areas of Puerto Rico, in which from a very young age, a mixture of culture and religion, your parents teach you that you always support your neighbors, and you always give to your neighbors without expecting to receive anything from them. And there’s this instilled culture of supporting, your [foreign language 00:06:44], the people around you, and supporting each other. And because of that foundation of beliefs, that’s why the community was able to come together so quickly.

Bill Nussey:
Excellent. Thank you.

[Mayor Ivan Marrero speaks in spanish]

Celines Pacheco:
My name is Celines Pacheo, I’ve been here for 23 years, more or less.

Bill Nussey:
Wow. I’m really interested to understand what it was like to live here in Puerto Rico during and after the hurricane. Particularly, since you have dealt with children, which has got to be really tough.

Celines Pacheco:
Yeah. It was really difficult here because the light here, we were one of the last schools to get electricity back and the water.

Bill Nussey:
How long did that take?

Celines Pacheco:
Oh my God. I think the lights came back here in March. Around March, and we were working half days, and alternate days at that, because we didn’t have another English teacher. I was the only elementary school English teacher, so everybody would get their class because we’re lacking already a teacher. We’re here all summer because we put the flooring on everything, and Maria ripped off the roof.

Celines Pacheco:
I’m one of the closest teachers that live nearby, and when I got here, I couldn’t open any of the gates, because all the trees were blocking it, electrical cables, the roof of one of the businesses that’s over here, it ended up wrapped around my classroom. It was like, that gate, there was no way we could open it, so after a while we were able to open the front gate, but inside it was a disaster.

We did practically everything here. We have parents who owns a construction company, and he lent us a digger, but we had to drag everything out of school to the other side of the road, and he’d get rid of the materials. We’re all female staff, so we were dragging. You’d see 10 teachers dragging a limb across the street, dragging pieces of metal, and garbage, everything.

Bill Nussey:
One of the things I’ve heard about how Puerto Ricans got through this was they pulled together as communities in a way that’s hard for a lot of people to understand. Did the community play a big role here?

Celines Pacheco:
Yes, true. If it wasn’t for the community, we wouldn’t have been up as soon as we were, because we were able to start giving classes because all of the teachers, and the parents came here to help to take everything out of the school. If not, we would have been delayed maybe for two more months, by the time that the official staff got here to clean up everything.

Bill Nussey:
And one of the things that I was interested to learn is that without food or electricity, you guys can’t necessarily have school. What are the rules? How does that work?

Celines Pacheco:
Well, usually we were here from eight to 11. We divide the classes. Some days we’d give some classes, the others have that least impact on the kids. They didn’t have breakfast here, but they did have lunch, and they’d give crackers, and ham, something like little juice boxes, and that’s how we handled that. The kids had to bring water from their home, because we weren’t able to supply here.

Bill Nussey:
You have to basically be able to feed the kids in order to have school here.

Celines Pacheco:
Yeah, that’s how we got by during those months, because we were here. I think we were the last school to go back to the eight to three regular schedule.

Bill Nussey:
You had to have electricity to have the full schedule?

Celines Pacheco:
That was one of the … because if we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have the electrical pump to pump the waste, the bathroom that’s for the elementary level, the whole school had to go to the bathroom. The kids used to come up here to go be able to go to the bathroom, because that was the only one that goes directly to the waste container.

Bill Nussey:
Wow. Okay.

Celines Pacheco:
It was like we had to adapt. It was difficult getting used to because we have so many kids trying to adapt to the same schedule. And we had a lot of kids who had to leave because there couldn’t maintain their homes. Some of them, their houses were buried in mud. If the machines came to take away the mud, the house of the neighbor would fall on top of it. Others couldn’t get to here, because we have a lot of parents that don’t live near this area. They travel here because their parents work in this area. The roads, they couldn’t get by. It was the road to behind [Quithas 00:10:40], which is the nearest town here, the roads where they would fit one car, and then a tractor-trailer would be coming with supplies. They’d had to drive in reverse, everything they had [inaudible 00:10:53] until they reached an area.

Celines Pacheco:
If it was an entrance of a house, [inaudible 00:10:57] they get in, so the tractor-trailer that passed by, so they’d have to leave sometimes three hours before their usual time to get here on time to school.

Bill Nussey:
Are things getting back to normal yet?

Celines Pacheco:
Oh, yeah, they’re back to normal. Yeah, everything is back to normal. The only thing is that we’re having problems with, the material that we weren’t able to cover because we have to continue working with the curricular maps, so the kids have those lagoons of what they didn’t learn in that time. But we still work with curriculum map at this level, at the level that we’re supposed to be at. That’s the only thing that we’re lacking that you see that the kids are … but everything else is back to normal. Because it’s a family. All of this is family, so we keep it together.

Sam Easterby:
For the schools in Puerto Rico, the best solution for providing electricity wasn’t the traditional diesel power generators, but rather solar microgrids. But what is a solar microgrid? Solar microgrids are a technology marvel that has only become practical in the last few years, as the price of both solar panels, and batteries has plummeted.

Solar panels by themselves are great for lowering electric bills and helping the environment. But solar microgrids, solar plus batteries, can disconnect from the grid during a blackout, and operate on their own. This is called islanding. They achieved this by combining four components, traditional solar panels, batteries, a controller, and a switch that can disconnect a home or building from the grid.

Solar microgrids are the quintessential example of local energy and a fundamental building block of the vision for the Freeing Energy Project. To learn more about solar microgrids, visit freeingenergy.com, and search for solar microgrids.

Now listen in as Bill talks with Megan Kerins, a senior associate at the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Island team member, as she steps us through their process of building the solar microgrids for remote schools.

Bill Nussey:
Megan, I’m really excited to get your take on all these projects we’ve seen, but before we do that, I’d love to hear about your background. I mean, here we are in Puerto Rico, you’ve been here for a long time working on these projects. What brought you to Puerto Rico, and what brought you to Rocky Mountain Institute, and sort of bring us to today? How’d you get here?

Megan Kerins:
Thanks Bill. Yeah, it’s been really exciting to work in Puerto Rico on the microgrid topic. And what brought me here was really the combination of my background and interest in solar energy. I had been working in the domestic solar market in California mostly, for quite a few years. And then, I also have a personal great interest and passion for humanitarian issues, for energy independence, for the intersection between energy, and let’s say politics and society.

Megan Kerins:
Going way back, actually back in 2007, or so, I was in Thailand, and I helped to build my first microgrid, it was actually a small hydropower system with the local village.

Bill Nussey:
Wow.

Megan Kerins:
Yeah, and then I went from there and started working domestically, and for companies like Sunrun GRID Alternatives, which is a very cool nonprofit as well.

Megan Kerins:
But I found that it was missing something for me of that energy access, energy independence, kind of bent. And so, from there, I started my own consulting company working in the Caribbean, specifically in Haiti. It was called Solar Stewards. I worked there for a couple of years, and then, at some point, I wanted to find something that was a bit more far-reaching, and work with a team again. I had been working independently for a long time, and that’s when I found Rocky Mountain Institute. They have an Island’s team that works with 15 different islands in the Caribbean, and we’re focusing on Puerto Rico at the time. I joined the team at that time. It was perfect, perfect timing for me, and I love working in Puerto Rico.

Bill Nussey:
We were walking around these middle schools, surrounded by kids, incredibly beautiful settings, colorful buildings. And on top of this, and very recently, thanks to your work and your colleagues, there are solar panels, and batteries, that are allowing these classrooms, and computer labs, and refrigerators, and kitchens, and administrative buildings, to work.

And you were really one of the core people that helped pull together the designs and the specifications. Let’s do this in two parts. First of all, how did you even figure out what you would need to put on these roofs? Critical needs, all that stuff. And then, we’ll get to the second part, and talk about what you and the team ended up putting on the roofs.

Megan Kerins:
We started by visiting the schools and assessing their loads. These microgrids really backup what we call critical loads, and what constitutes a critical load partly depends on the usage, and what the microgrid recipient, in this case, the school would deem to be a priority.

Bill Nussey:
This is a subset of the total power?

Megan Kerins:
Right, exactly. In the school’s case, it would be things like lights, computers, refrigerators for the food. Taking a step back when Maria came through Puerto Rico and took out the power to the entire island, the schools had to close down mostly because they couldn’t feed the children. The refrigerators that had food in them were not able to run, so the food went bad, and children weren’t able to go to school for that reason.

Also, for the schools that have pumps that run the sewage system, the bathrooms weren’t working, so energy serves a very vital function in school operations on a fundamental level. Those were the loads that were most needed to be backed up. Now computers and other things also obviously serve a critical role in education, so we included those as well. And other loads, such as air conditioning were not deemed as critical. While they can still have an air conditioning unit during an outage, those types of loads would not be connected to the microcredit.

Bill Nussey:
Because you’re trying to strike a balance between the cost of the microgrid, and obviously as close as you can get to letting the school function normally, but there’s a lot of trade-offs, particularly these days, as the technology’s still emerging.

Megan Kerins:
That’s right.

Bill Nussey:
And so, you had a rough sense of what the school needed in terms of the power to meet the critical loads. Then, you had to figure out how to get these things built, and I’m guessing you didn’t climb up on the roof yourself with a hammer and do this. How did you go about doing that?

Megan Kerins:
That’s correct. I mean, I did climb up on the roof to take it off.

Bill Nussey:
I saw you on the roof poking around.

Megan Kerins:
To take a look at it, but then, when it came to actually implementing the systems, what we did was we wrote a request for proposals. We conducted a site walk, which involved, I believe the first one we did had 14 different EPC’s from around Puerto Rico. There were about 14 different companies that were all very curious about, these schools had a ton of questions, very bright, very motivated. Then, they were able to assess the school themselves.

Bill Nussey:
And by a calendar wise, when was this taking place?

Megan Kerins:
Our first site walk, I believe was last fall.

Bill Nussey:
Okay, so about a year ago.

Megan Kerins:
Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). At that point, once the site walk was concluded, the EPC’s, or the installers that were present, put together their own bids. We received, I think on that round of around six bids out of the 14 companies. Some may be deemed the project to be too large for their operations, or what have you. Puerto Rico, the solar market is very nascent. A lot of these installers are smaller. They’re just still figuring it out. The ones that did bid, we went through the bids, and reviewed them according to their technical strength, and the cost of course, as well.

And reached a winner, awarded the bid to that winner. It was a company here that we’ve been working with on other projects as well. And they’ve done an excellent job, actually. We’ve been really pleased with the quality of their work. And the schools, as you said before, have been very happy to receive this state of the art equipment, and to finally have the sort of security that they didn’t have before, when at any point the electricity could go out, and they could be thrown back into the dark.

Now that these schools have micro grids on the rooftops, they’re able to run the school operations without interruption.

Bill Nussey:
One of the schools we visited yesterday was in Barranquitas, and they had just had a multi-hour outage just a few days earlier, so these things happen a lot. People, I think, sort of understand that when Maria came through it shut down months and up to a year, but maybe they don’t understand that in Puerto Rico, in rural parts of Puerto Rico, in many parts of the world, the electricity quality just doesn’t run all the time. And for schools, this is a very serious requirement for them to safely and administratively take care of the kids, feed them, bathrooms, et cetera. Electricity is more than keep the lights on, so they can read the books.

Megan Kerins:
It is, absolutely. Yeah, in the case of Puerto Rico, which is a very modern Western economy, electricity is the basis of so much. And at schools, they do have computer labs. They do have other things that they use the electricity for. And unfortunately, when a school can’t serve the students, and the students have to go home, that also means that mom and dad can’t be at work. It really has cascading effects going all the way down the economy. Schools actually serve a very important set of purposes that without electricity just can’t happen.

Bill Nussey:
I want to put my solar nerd hat on, and so, I saw dozens of solar panels on the roof. And then, we went inside of the closets and offices, and on the outside of some of these, we saw batteries. Tell me a little bit about what kind of system do these schools have.

Megan Kerins:
These systems use some of the best equipment on the market. We only allow tier one panels. We only allow lithium type batteries. Those types of technologies that are the same that you would see on any commercial system in the United States. We have on these particular schools, han valk, you sell panels. I think there were three forties, three 40 watt panels, so pretty big. Beautiful systems, I mean, they look great. They’re lined up to face south, and installed beautifully. That part was excellent.

Bill Nussey:
I’ll put lots of pictures of these on the website if the podcast listeners want to go see it.

Megan Kerins:
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There’s something to behold.

Bill Nussey:
And that person that’s very small in the distance wandering [inaudible 00:21:34] that’s probably Megan.

Megan Kerins:
It’s probably me looking under each panel to make sure the wires are attached correctly.

And then, on the AC side of things, we have the inverters are actually micro inverters typically on these schools. It depends on the type of electrical service that they have, but for the most part, we have Enphase micro inverters under each panel, adding just another level of resilience, and also complying with the rooftop disconnect rules in the NEC 2017. Those end phase inverters have a very long warranty, longer than most inverters, and so, also I would say those are a top choice of equipment.

Megan Kerins:
And then, finally on the battery side, typically these installations have Tesla power walls at 13.5 kilowatt hours per battery that are backing up also the critical loads. And in the case of an outage.

Bill Nussey:
We love batteries here at the Freeing Energy Project. And there was another vendor, I think I saw on some of them, was it?

Megan Kerins:
Yes. Yeah, and on some of them, for the three-phase systems, we’re using Pika.

Bill Nussey:
Pika, okay.

Megan Kerins:
And they come with also their own inverter, so in that case, we don’t have a micro inverter, but Pika battery, plus their harbor flex inverter for those systems. Those are 208 volt three-phase interconnections, and that’s why it requires a different technology.

Bill Nussey:
And I’ve seen my share of solar installations, and these were well laid out, and they were cool looking. They were new and the panels are gorgeous. And so, for people like me, hopefully, everyone listening, this is beautiful stuff, and the teams that you guys put in place did a magnificent job.

Thank you very much for sharing that, and a really huge thank you for what you and the teams are doing to help these folks here, that these children, and the teachers, and really the communities to get back on their feet from the hurricane, but more importantly, to be ready for everything. Hopefully no major disasters, but even the day to day needs of those communities. Great work. Thank you.

Megan Kerins:
Thank you, Bill.

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