Puerto Rico has been devastated.
Yesterday, I spent about an hour watching a video that was taken from the dashboard of a car driving through the Puerto Rican countryside. My friend Joseph Mangum had driven for miles through the mountains, over roads with piles of wreckage on the sides that seemed endless. Beyond the wreckage was a countryside populated by trees that had been stripped bare.
“I have driven down these roads many times before,” Joseph said. “This used to be jungle. You could only see forest canopy above you.” Honestly, it looked more like desolate moor land from a gothic horror novel.
Joseph has been setting up some tiny microgrids to help people out in mountain communities. He knows the area. He said he thinks that in some places it will be well over a year before grid electricity is operating again. There are similar problems with water. People are living in huts cobbled together out of pieces torn by the wind from wrecked houses. The fields have no crops. There is almost no way to grow them. There are few stores open aside from big ones like Walmart and Home Depot, which had their own generators. The people have no work to earn money, and their possessions have been destroyed, so they are dependent on donations to survive. Many of them have never seen FEMA. And the Army Corps of Engineers has long since been ordered to pull out.
Long ago, in a continent far away, a new idea developed in small towns and villages. It was the idea that local people could take power into their own hands and operate it sustainably. One place where this idea took hold was a village in southern Germany called Wildpoldsried. Twenty years ago, people began building wind turbines and bio-digesters to make their own power. Small hydro power and solar photovoltaics were soon added to the mix. District heating was established in the center of the community, and insulation was added to buildings. By 2010, the village was producing far more power than it needed, and energy, which had once been a drag on the economy, became instead a product to be exported, bringing wealth into the area.
That year, 2010, that Christoph Ostermann and Torsten Stiefenhofer founded an energy company in Wildpoldsried. In the short time since, that small company, in a community of just 2,500 people, has become a world-class business, combining solar power and the batteries they sell into microgrids. It is now called sonnen GmbH, and it is known over much of the world for its battery systems.
When Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico, a number of companies answered the call to help. Elon Musk famously put off his grand unveiling of the Tesla Semi Truck so the company could spend some time focusing on helping the people of the island. There were a number of other companies that also went to help. But one that has turned out to be particularly noteworthy is sonnen.
Christoph Ostermann, a founder and now the CEO of sonnen, went in person. He traveled around the island, visiting some remote areas. He saw a lot of people in need. And he did a lot of work.
Guided by Ostermann, sonnen entered into a partnership with local energy company Pura Energia. Together they have donated six systems called “Energy Oases” at key sites on the island. Nine more are being planned for construction soon. These microgrids are important because they can continue to function when the electric grid has failed, and they require no fuel to operate.
One is at La Perla, a neighborhood of San Juan (with batteries of 8 kW power / 16 kWh). One is in a town east of San Juan, Loiza (4kw / 8kWh). And one is Morovis, which is west of the center of the island, in the mountains (8kW / 16kWh). Videos of the results can be seen on YouTube:
sonnen also built a battery system (8 kW / 16 kWh) working with a solar array in Humacao, which was particularly badly damaged. The system provides electricity for refrigeration and meal preparation for 500 people. It also provides for clean water and wifi communications.
Another system (with batteries of 8 kW / 16 kWh) provides power for refrigeration, fans, and microwaves for a school for children with special needs in Aguadilla. The electricity it provides allows the school to continue operations.
Yet another installation, the Maricao microgrid, has two battery systems (each 4 kw / 8kWh) with solar PVs providing refrigeration, lights, and other services at a shelter. The mountain town has been heavily damaged. The 45 people who depend on these systems expect to be otherwise without electricity for many months.
Ostermann, clearly moved by what he saw, summed up his experiences, saying, “This trip deeply impacted our entire leadership team and solidified our resolve to help the people of Puerto Rico.” He continued, “Speaking with government officials, residents and our partners on the ground gave us a ‘hands on’ understanding of the magnitude of suffering that has occurred since Hurricane Maria. We come away from this trip with as clear a vision as ever before for Puerto Rico and the rest of the world.”
Many people who have worked in Puerto Rico have concluded that microgrids, such as the ones sonnen is pulling together, are really the only viable technology to supply secure power for the island. Many have stated that rebuilding the grid as it was is a fool’s errand, because it will just be destroyed again. Having a stockpile of coal at a power plant provides no security when the transmission lines are down. Microgrids, however, can be maintained and repaired locally, they can keep going when the grid has failed. And if they are renewably powered microgrids, they are independent of fuel.
We are moving into a new era for weather. This became clear this summer, when four hurricanes all set records over a period of only eight weeks. First, Hurricane Harvey set a record as the most destructive storm ever to hit the US, in terms of economic loss. It was the third 500-year storm in Texas in three years. One meteorologist called it a “25,000-year storm.” Two weeks later, Hurricane Irma stuck Puerto Rico, Florida, and Georgia. It was the most powerful storm ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean, outside of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Two weeks after that came Hurricane Maria, with lower barometric pressures than either Harvey or Irma. Like Irma, it hit Puerto Rico and it caused the longest power outages in US history. This was followed in two weeks by Hurricane Ophelia, which was the first major hurricane ever to form as far east as it did. It hit Ireland with 119-mph winds. 2017 was also the first year ever to have three hurricanes of category 3 or higher hit the US. All three were category 4.
All of this was not lost on Ostermann. He has met with numerous officials in Puerto Rico, including Governor Ricardo Rosselló, and talked about the future of the island’s electricity supply. Planning for a future that can be sustainable as the climate warms is a challenge. We get the sense from statements and news, however, that these people all regard it as a challenge that must and can be met.
Manual Laboy, Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce, summed up the meeting, saying, “The vision of sonnen is aligned with the commitment of Governor Ricardo Rosello’s administration in rebuilding a solid electrical infrastructure based on different alternative energy sources. We thank sonnen and its local distributor, Pura Energia, for their efforts and commitment to the people of Puerto Rico, and we hope that this will be the beginning of a long-term relationship between sonnen and Puerto Rico.”
After his executive visit, Ostermann announced that his company had formed the sonnen Foundation for Energy Security. It was created to enable implementation of microgrids in vital local areas, such as schools, shelters, and community centers. sonnen’s press release announcing the foundation said it ” speaks to sonnen’s core principles for achieving clean, reliable and affordable energy for all.”
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