Podcast 026: Ana Sophia Mifsud – Her story from ground zero – Shaping the energy future of Puerto Rico with microgrids

Ana Sophia Mifsud of the Rocky Mountain Institute RMI Freeing Energy Podcast

In part three of this special three-part series, Host Bill Nussey travels to the mountains of central Puerto Rico and talks with Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI), Ana Sophia Mifsud.  Ana Sophia shares her journey in the world of renewable energy and how by being on-site, she and the RMI team are helping shape the future of Puerto Rico with microgrids, one school at a time.

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Ana Sophia Mifsud: Her story from ground zero – shaping the energy future of Puerto Rico with microgrids.

In part three of this special three part series, Host Bill Nussey travels to the mountains of central Puerto Rico and talks with Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI), Ana Sophia Mifsud.  Ana Sophia shares her journey in the world of renewable energy and how by being on site she and the RMI team are helping shape the future of Puerto Rico with micro grids one school at a time.

Additional reading

Transcript

Bill Nussey:
So I finally had a chance to catch up with Ana Sophia out here at the hotel. She was traveling yesterday, all around Puerto Rico, again, looking at another site and taking some other visitors for an amazing tour, which I hear was absolutely beautiful. So Ana Sophia, how did you get into this industry and what made you decide to join RMI? And then how did you find yourself in Puerto Rico in this amazing project?

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
Thanks Bill for having me. I was born in Guatemala and moved to the United States when I was quite young, but throughout my childhood spent about four months of the year in Guatemala and traveled back and forth between the tropical gem that is Miami and the beautiful mountains and volcanoes of Guatemala. And at a very young age, saw the differences and opportunities I had or women like me had, or women not like me had between Guatemala and Miami. And from a very young age, I became interested in economic development and how economic opportunity could really play a role in improving people’s lives. By the time I got to high school, I also became a raging environmentalist I’d say. Like many teenagers that work in the climate field, at some point of high school I became conflicted by what felt like contradictory passions at the same time.

How could I both promote economic development, which so often harms the environment and also protect the environment. I was very fortunate that I had an amazing high school teacher that was teaching a course on solar energy when I was in high school. I fell into the class, it was an elective when I was maybe 14 years old and learned about renewable energy and how clean energy can be a way to achieve both of my passions, a form of economic development, and also a way to steward the environment and limit the environmental degradation we have on the environment.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
That led me to Stanford, where I majored in environmental systems engineering and focused on how the urban system impacted the environment and was really interested in this intersection of economic development and climate and renewable energy. And that I think quite naturally brought me to RMI as one of the leading organizations in the climate space that think about how this energy transition can not only help steward the environment but can also be used as an economic engine to help people’s lives.

Bill Nussey:
Tell us a little bit about the project here in Puerto Rico, that you have devoted a big chunk of your recent life to.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
Absolutely. We started working in Puerto Rico a couple of weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the island. And I work on the Islands Energy Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute. And we had never worked in Puerto Rico before. We tended to work in smaller islands scattered throughout the Caribbean, St. Lucia or St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but we’re really struck by the devastation we saw after Hurricane Maria. The devastating stories of what lack of electricity leads to in a society. And I think in addition to feeling compassion for the people of Puerto Rico, I think many of us on the team were struck by how a U.S. Territory, group of islands made up of U.S. Citizens could experience such devastation.

Fortunately, our organization and our donors were excited and willing to support, as they say in Puerto Rico, building back better. So building back Puerto Rico, not to the state of infrastructure before Maria, which also was quite unreliable, but thinking about a future of Puerto Rico that is more resilient economically, environmentally, and supports its citizens. That spearheaded a wide array of work here in Puerto Rico, bringing stakeholders together and engaging in conversations about what that energy should look like. Here in Puerto Rico, we want to be facilitators of that conversation, bringing our experience and expertise in the field, but really understanding that there are many locals that have been working on this issue for pretty much their entire working lives.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
And so in Puerto Rico, we hope to be facilitators of these conversations but also try to help implement and innovate in this space. And the work that I’ve been doing around that has been in the field of microgrids. Specifically, in microgrids, we’ve had two different programs, the renewable schools microgrid pilot that I have been working a lot on. And we’ve also spent quite a bit of time looking at what the broader microgrid market looks like in Puerto Rico and explored ways to galvanize and scale the efforts that we started in public schools here in Puerto Rico, but really see it as an opportunity to scale nationwide as a method to improve resilience throughout Puerto Rico.

Bill Nussey:
While you were taking us through the schools yesterday and sharing the stories of life after the hurricane, that was really amazing to understand how the lack of electricity and water affected the lives of the folks who live there immediately. And I wonder if you can just share some of those stories again, like for example, what happened immediately after the hurricane hit the schools? You’ve heard these stories from the people that live there if you can recount a few of them, and then what did it take for the school to open again? It was obviously a lot more challenging than I would have thought and hearing the stories firsthand really brought it home.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
Yeah. I want to try to put it as eloquently as the people I speak to when I go throughout the Island and talk to students and teachers and community members, but from a kid’s perspective, I’ve spoken to quite a bit of kids and they talk about being just so afraid and being so confused and so uncertain, not knowing what was going on during the hurricane. 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. For many of the children in these schools, they lost their houses. So having to deal, not only with existing economic issues that exist in a lot of places in Puerto Rico but tack on homelessness or not having housing after a storm or clean clothes or clean water, clean food.

There also is a feeling of uncertainty about what happens to my community after the storm. Several children know family members that were injured and even some that died after Hurricane Maria, but even those that were lucky enough not to have loved ones died. Many of their family members and their friends and even their teachers move to the United States in order to prevent this sort of tragic disaster from striking their families again. So for children, not only are they dealing with the trauma of the actual storm, but they’re dealing with the uncertainty of their communities or even where they’re going to live after the storm. So for many of these children, really what they desperately wanted was a sense of normalcy. And for children what that means is trying to get back to school. Unfortunately, because of the lack of electricity, many of these schools could not open.

And even before getting electricity, many of these schools were extremely damaged after the storm. I visited many of these schools a couple of months after Hurricane Maria and entire wings of the school had the roof ripped up out of them. There was mold in lots of classrooms because the rain had seeped into the floors and the walls. And so the teachers for many months had to spend their days as handymen and handywomen and janitors and trying to clean up their schools because the devastation was so much on the Island that so much of the resources were being diverted to other critical needs in the Island. And even if these emergency response services wanted to support the schools, the infrastructure throughout the islands, especially the road infrastructure was so damaged that it was extremely difficult for services to reach these mountainous communities. And so for many schools, they spent two months just trying to clean up their school and just trying to make it good enough to receive some children.

And after two to three months, they started receiving children. Sometimes even before water and electricity had been completely restored to their schools. And they were asking children to bring their own water to schools, which is baffling considering that some of these kids were just trying to deal with homelessness or their entire families were trying to find water. How could they send their children with clean water resources? For many of these schools, the lack of electricity costs a complete upheaval of what normalcy was in these schools. They weren’t able to provide meals for their children because of the lack of electricity, not allowing for refrigeration. The lack of water meant that toilets couldn’t be flushed causing potential health implications for the children and causing sanitation problems.

These are reasons why many schools spent six, eight months closed or half functioning, only halftime for their students. As a result, I think we will see the generational impacts of not being in school for extended periods of time, of an entire generation of young people in Puerto Rico. Many teachers even today talk about, we have to continue the curriculum. However, many of my students missed almost an entire year of school. I don’t want them to fall behind, but it’s difficult not to recognize what a lack of six months of school does to a child.

Interstitial:
Here’s a question for you to consider, could my community be powered by a microgrid? Imagine a neighborhood powered entirely by local energy, shared solar panels, energy-efficient homes, and community batteries to power houses at night. Even when the grid is down, lights and air conditioning will keep running without a hitch. While this vision remains a rarity, it is starting to happen. The Reynolds Landing Smart Neighborhood in Hoover, Alabama is proof that local energy works and that homeowners want to be a part of it. With a nod to the Jetsons, residents of the neighborhood enjoy smartphone controlled security systems, car chargers in their garages, smart water heaters, grid aware air conditioners, oh, and a microgrid powering the whole thing.

Sam Easterby:
The three-acre microgrid consists of a 330 kilowatt solar field and a battery system that stores up to 600 kilowatt hours, a 400 kilowatt natural gas generator backs up the microgrid during extended cloudy weather and grid outages. The 62 houses at Reynolds landing are 35% more energy efficient than the average new home built in Alabama. It’s the first microgrid in the Southeast. And one of the few in the world that’s able to power an entire community. Now back to Bill and Ana Sophia. Listen in as Ana Sofia takes us on a tour of one school’s solar plus battery microgrid installation.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
Many of the electric bills of each individual school are estimated.

Bill Nussey:
Right.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
What you’ll see in some of these schools is that sometimes there are three, four, sometimes even five electric meters. And so in some of these schools, [inaudible 00:13:41] just provides an estimate for what the electricity consumption is. And so now when we file these net metering documents for the first time they’re having to identify really what are the meters in the schools that we’re connecting to and having to actually measure what the electricity consumption is in the schools. And so in addition to being extremely backlogged, in addition to potentially dragging their feet a little bit, there’s just a logistical issue of trying to figure out what meter goes with what school and to what account that the department of education. So the school doesn’t immediately see how much their energy consumption is because they don’t pay the bill.

The department of education pays the bill and there’s no real oversight or the school doesn’t even know what their energy consumption is. And they don’t benefit at all from any energy efficiency improvements. The school itself is not benefiting from the reduction in energy consumption, which creates big issues with incentives. Right? I see all the time when I visit these schools, the school is at least, the windows have screens and the door has screens, but many times you’ll be in a classroom that has an installed air condition unit in a window, but the door is open and all the windows are open. There’s not a big concept of energy efficiency because the school isn’t responsible for electricity consumption.

To test the market and the way we wanted to approach these procurements, we said, we don’t know what we’re doing here in Puerto Rico. What do you suggest? And what we found is that this is a new market here. A lot of the EPCs, were not quite there to be able to recommend, or what they were recommending was twice as large as what we ended up going with. And that’s something we’ve heard from other NGOs that have installed these systems that actually they’ve hired a third party, like an engineering firm to decide on the size of the system and the chemistry of the batteries, for example.

And we imagine a Puerto Rico that in which the utility leverages these batteries, this exists in other places in the world. And some U.S. markets in which the utility starts using these batteries for some of the services they need. It’s a really high peak day and so it knows that it can discharge bits of the batteries that are distributed. And we do have batteries that are equipped to be able to provide those services. But currently in Puerto Rico, there is no market for these batteries to be used by the utility.

Bill Nussey:
My thought would have been that they would use the batteries if they were charged by solar, when the clouds go by or at night, so they can utilize a hundred percent of the locally generated, but that’s not what they’re doing.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
No, you don’t want to discharge your batteries very frequently.

Bill Nussey:
Okay.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
If you can avoid it. It also depends on the battery chemistry.

Bill Nussey:
Yes.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
But discharging every day might degrade the battery life by a certain amount. And so we protect the longevity of the battery. However, in these systems that are connected to the utility and the utility is leveraging a portion of the battery, you can program how much the utility can take of your batteries’ capacity. And what I’ve seen is that utilities use it mostly for small things like voltage regulation. Sometimes you’ll see peak shaving, which would mean actually using the energy of the batteries, but it’s a little bit less common. And so that only uses a small part of the capacity of the battery rather than discharging fully, which tends to degrade the battery more. But due to the architecture of the school and the fact that the building sometimes is not connected really electrically, you have to create three different microgrid systems as opposed to having one microgrid system for the entire school.

Bill Nussey:
Are all the batteries Teslas? Or are they different vendors?

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
In all our schools, we have either Tesla or a better company called Pika Energy. And in this school, we have both. And the reason is that the school has both three-phase and single-phase electricity. Tesla’s currently worked well in single-phase installations, but have yet to provide the appropriate training in order to install in three-phase systems. And that’s why in some of our schools, we either have one or the other or in this case, we have both which is not convenient for maintenance or monitoring of the school, having two separate battery technologies. Because the monitoring is provided by the battery manufacturer. And so, in the school, they would theoretically have to monitor two different systems that have different interfaces. And when you’re talking about local principals, for example, that don’t know already much about energy to then have them distinguish between two different infrastructures or monitoring services is challenging.

Prior to Hurricane Maria only maybe 5% of all systems installed, had battery backup in them. And so when you don’t have batteries in these systems, and they’re connected to the grid, you can’t self consume because you’re not getting the signals from the grant. So even though they had solar on the roof that was intact, they couldn’t consume that energy. You hear all the way from 90% of all systems today in Puerto Rico includes batteries, even in house systems. So there’s been a radical shift for what the systems look like in Puerto Rico.

Bill Nussey:
And it helps the price of batteries have plummeted in the last two years. So it makes it feasible, but 90% is a really great number and it makes a lot of sense. So between making it hurricane resilient, more so than perhaps they’ve done in the past and adding batteries, you’re going to have a completely different outcome if there’s ever a major weather event here.

Ana Sophia Mifsud:
We had pretty rigorous specs, especially around resilience. We made the panels extremely resilient to high winds and have really sophisticated racking methods, which are not the industry standard right now. And many of them said you’re going to increase the price of the system by this much. And there was a lot of questions about why are you doing this? And it was both a learning opportunity for us to hear how sophisticated the market is here in Puerto Rico and where they’re learning a lot. And also for them to hear what customers are asking for and what’s available because they, some installers would say, no, that doesn’t exist. There’s no panel manufacturer that has the specifications that you want. And we say, no, yes there is. Like here, the list of a couple of the panels that are rated to this.

Bill Nussey:
A lot of people ask the open question, can solar survive hurricanes, as if there’s a single answer. And it’s the same answer as can buildings survive hurricanes if you build it or an earthquake. You can build a building to be highly resilient to the natural forces or save some money or not. And it sounds like the school here and with your help has made some great decisions to invest in much more hurricane and wind-resistant technology. And it costs more. But when the wind comes, boy, you’re feeling good.

Host Sam:
Thank you for joining us today. You have been listening to the Freeing Energy podcast, personal stories from the clean energy movement. Visit freeingenergy.com to learn more about clean local energy. I’m Sam Easterby. Bill Nussey is my cohost and the founder of the Freeing Energy project. The Freeing Energy podcast is made in partnership with Frequency Media. Peter LoPinto is our Associate Producer. Subscribe to the Freeing Energy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. Make sure more people learn about clean local energy by rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts.

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