Image credit: Ricardo Arduengo, Honnold Foundation

First Community Solar Installation Goes Live In Puerto Rico

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The people of Puerto Rico are suspicious of authority. In the words of an Alison Krauss song, they’ve been “put down, pushed around, apprehended, and led downtown” ever since Christopher Columbus first wrote to the king of Spain, praising the native people for their meekness and docility, qualities he felt would make them excellent slaves.

In recent times, the island has been a haven for modern day pirates — many of them members of Congress — who love to strip the island of its natural resources at prices well below fair market value. The First Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, visits the island once a year to resolve legal disputes. That visit is always in February when the trade winds cool Puerto Rico’s sun splashed beaches and the snow is deep back home in Boston.

Puerto Rico has always had a fraught relationship with electricity. Most of it comes from thermal generating plants located near the port city of Ponce in the south. From there, it travels by high voltage transmission lines over the island’s mountainous interior where the peaks are up to 5000 feet high. Those transmission lines were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September, 2017, leaving much of the island without electricity, clean drinking water, or medical services. The residents were cheered, however, by the sight of the chief executive distributing free paper towels. That’s the kind of backhanded slap in the face Puerto Ricans have gotten used to over the centuries.

Things only got worse when the distributor of paper towels allowed Ryan Zinke, his Secretary of the Interior, to appoint a company with three employees and no experience building electrical grids to be in charge of rebuilding the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. Since then, the old grid operator has been replaced by something called LUMA Energy. 6 years after the devastation caused by Irma and Maria, the US government has pledged $1 billion to bring 100% renewable energy to the beleaguered island, but the locals want no part of large solar farms that are under the thumb of bureaucrats in Washington, DC.

Community Solar In Puerto Rico

Adjuntas is located in the mountainous central section of the island and is closer to Ponce than San Juan. This week, it is celebrating the completion of the island’s first cooperatively managed solar microgrid. The network of photovoltaic panels and battery storage will use renewable energy to keep electricity flowing during a power outage.

The system includes 700 solar panels mounted on seven buildings in the town’s central plaza, together with a 1 MWh battery storage system. The batteries can provide enough electricity to keep 14 downtown businesses running for up to 10 days, serving as community hubs in case of an extended power outage. “This is a first-of-its-kind project,” Kate Trujillo, deputy director of the nonprofit Honnold Foundation, tells Grist. “It’s amazing to see it all coalescing.”

Business owners and residents will run the microgrid through a nonprofit called the Community Solar Energy Association of Adjuntas, which will sell electricity to the commonwealth’s grid through a power purchase agreement. Money saved by not buying power from Puerto Rico’s main power company will support maintaining the microgrid and starting new community projects, the Honnold Foundation says.

Meet Casa Pueblo

Credit: Ricardo Arduengo, Honnold Foundation

The community solar project in Adjuntas is the result of years of work by Casa Pueblo, a local organization that describes itself as a community self-management project committed to appreciating and protecting natural, cultural, and human resources. It was born in 1980, when the government of Puerto Rico wanted to start a mining operation in 17 deposits of silver, gold, and copper. Mining would have caused an ecological and social catastrophe in 36,000 acres of land in the municipalities of Adjuntas, Utuado, Lares, and Jayuya. Through community action, the mining project was halted.

Clean energy advocates see the work of Casa Pueblo in making the Adjuntas Pueblo Solar project a reality as a model for the entire island, one that would allow communities to achiever energy independence and the ability to decide what solar projects work best in their own areas. “There are many eyes on this project,” Alexis Massol González, founder of Casa Pueblo, tells Energy News. “This is a top notch model. We Puerto Ricans are proud of having a project like this. May the Department of Energy come and study it.”

The Adjuntas microgrid has been in the works since 2019, as supporters needed time to raise funds for the system’s many components and figure out how to transport them up the mountain into town. Progress was further hamstrung by COVID-related supply chain disruptions, as well recurrent earthquakes and hurricanes.

“We’ve gone through a lot but we knew it was the right way to go,” said Arturo Massol-Deyá, Casa Pueblo’s executive director. He said it was difficult to navigate a complex system of landlords, business owners, and other stakeholders to sort out how the microgrid would work and who would operate it.

Casa Pueblo used to own the only building in Adjuntas equipped with solar panels capable of meeting the community’s needs during an outage. Now, the microgrid will expand residents’ access to off-grid electricity, giving them the ability to refrigerate food and medicine, charge electronic devices, and more. “It’ll do the kind of things that really help communities keep together during power outages and natural disasters,” Trujillo said. “It’s a beacon of light, both figuratively and literally, in times of need.”

Casa Pueblo and the Honnold Foundation will inaugurate the microgrid on Saturday March 18 with a community-wide celebration, including a festive “Marcha del Sol” through downtown. Massol-Deyá said he wants the event to make “a political statement” to get more of Puerto Rico off fossil fuels. “What we are doing with the microgrid is a reference for what can and should be done in other municipalities in Puerto Rico. We can change our energy system, it can be done — we have shown that it can be done.”

Help For Puerto Rico From ORNL

Technically, the Adjuntas project involves two smaller microgrids with batteries divided between two storage containers on opposite sides of the plaza. It utilizes an “orchestrator tool” developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory that will enable the separate systems to work in concert by sharing information and giving or taking each other’s electricity supply as needed. “If there’s damage to one or even both microgrids, they’d be able to operate at least in some capacity and still be able to provide backup power,” said Ben Ollis, an Oak Ridge engineer who is leading the project with his colleague Max Ferrari.

Larger scale energy projects on the U.S. mainland use similar tools — called distributed energy resource management systems — to control and coordinate solar arrays, batteries, and backup fossil generators across the broader grid. Ollis said his lab’s orchestrator is the first designed to operate at a much smaller, localized level. “This is going to be our proof of concept,” he told Canary Media. ​“We’re trying to design it in such a way that it can be expandable to any number of microgrids” in Adjuntas and beyond.

The Takeaway

The US government has been pushing solar farms to help bring renewable energy to the island but the people have had enough of being slapped around, ignored, and run over by government agencies at all levels. There are several large solar farms near Guayama, but residents feel they have exacerbated flooding and taken land that should be used for crops. They are adamant that new solar should come in smaller rooftop arrays, not as utility scale solar.

“If we have enough rooftops to do the work, it is unnecessary to sacrifice the land to generate what we need, Alberto Colón of Comunidad Guayamesa, an organization that installs and maintains solar panels for elderly residents in Guayama, a town on the south coast near a massive coal fired generating plant. He tells Canary Media, “We have enough rooftops to generate three, four times what we need.” A recent study called PR100, whose analysis relies on a significant increase in rooftop solar found that “renewable energy potential in Puerto Rico significantly exceeds total energy demand now and through 2050.”

CleanTechnica readers can see where this is leading — local control of electricity rather than reliance on utility companies and regulators. That is the true message of the the first community solar installation in a small mountain top in central Puerto Rico. That transition can’t happen soon enough.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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