By: Kelsey Misbrener, associate editor Solar Power World
As of March 20, more than 120,000 Puerto Ricans still didn’t have electricity as a result of Hurricane Maria, according to Vox. Battery manufacturer sonnen has helped bring dependable electricity in the form of microgrids to some crucial Puerto Rican community centers.
“Our goal is clean and affordable energy for all, and we see a strong connection between climate change and climate disaster,” said Adam Gentner, sonnen’s director of business advancement, Latin American expansion. “If our goal is to fight climate change, then we also need to address the increasing frequency and severity of climate disasters that are happening across the world.”
Sonnen has been selling storage systems in Puerto Rico since 2016, so when the hurricane hit in September 2017, the company had already forged solid relationships with local installer Pura Energia and other businesses. Sonnen saw it as its mission to help however it could in the aftermath of Maria.
Pura Energia president Jose Garcia said the day before Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, he got on a conference call with sonnen. Garcia told them “it would be a disaster and it would be a catastrophe, but the electrical infrastructure would suffer the most and there will be people without power that may face life-threatening conditions. I presented them the scenario that that might happen…and it did happen.”
A week after the hurricane, when they regained communication, sonnen told Pura Energia it would like to donate five sonnenbatteries to the island. After it realized the scope of the damage, sonnen raised the number to 15.
“Sonnen has been not only [able] to supply or donate equipment, but to support us because they were here with us,” Garcia said.
Sonnen and Pura Energia have also seen an increased interest in microgrid systems for purchase since the hurricane.
“We are installing systems every day since Maria. I mean, we haven’t stopped,” Garcia said. “People realize the value. And Puerto Rico, I will say, is the best market in the United States at this time.”
Sonnen had already donated eight microgrid systems to the island to laundromats, food distribution centers and a school in Aguadilla for behaviorally challenged children before it found its next school project at S.U. Matrullas in Orocovis.
Gentner said after the hurricane, schools became a community recovery center where children could use technology as well as have access to fresh, refrigerated food. But S.U. Matrullas, a K-9 school with more than 150 students, is located far into the mountains and didn’t have the prospect of reconnecting to the grid for many months. The children were still able to go to school before the microgrid installation, but they had no power—meaning no refrigerated foods and no way to charge their computers. Sonnen budgeted more than $30,000 to give this important community gathering place its power back.
“A school is uniquely positioned to do really well with a solar+storage system because the kids are there when the sun’s up, so they can use most of the energy as it’s being produced,” Gentner said.
The school is situated in the Central Mountain Range, one of the highest peaks in Puerto Rico. When the sonnen team drove to the site, they had to go a roundabout way that added an hour onto their trip because a bridge and multiple roads were washed out. The remote location made the project a bit of a challenge, but sonnen’s experienced installation partner Pura Energía still finished the solar+storage installation in one day.
Garcia visited the school before the installation and saw the struggles it was dealing with without power. The students arrived around 7 a.m. each morning when it was still dark, and the food preparation workers had to put meals together without refrigerated items.
Once the team arrived for the installation, it went smoothly, except for an unexpected need to replace some of the electrical cabling and breakers that were too old to connect to the new high-tech solar equipment.
Pura Energía installed two sonnenbatteries at the school—a sonnenbatterie eco 16 to power the school dining room, including two commercial refrigerators, a bottle cooler, commercial two-door cooler, lighting and small appliances; and a sonnenbatterie eco 8 to power the director’s office and classrooms.
Pura Energía also installed a 14.54-kWdc rooftop solar system consisting of Trina Solar and BYD panels and Enphase inverters. The rooftop system was donated by nonprofit Puerto Rico We Care and Virginia utility company Dominion Energy.
When the team finished the installation and flipped on the lights, the students were delighted.
“It was gratifying that when the lights went on in the dining room, the kids were clapping and making victory noises,” Garcia said.
The project was special to Garcia in more ways than one.
“Both of my parents were schoolteachers and school directors,” Garcia said. “I went to public school in Puerto Rico, so I was educated by that system.” He said it was satisfying to be able to give back to the system that educated him.
Now, the school won’t need to reconnect to the electric grid when it is finally repaired. It will soon also be off-water with the help of organization Por los Nuestros, which is donating a water collection and filtration system to make the school fully off-grid.
“The solar microgrid has had a very important impact on the community, students and employees of our school,” said Alberto Melendez Castillo, director of S.U. Matrullas. “It has been very moving to see the students drinking cold water, eating fresh food and being able to work on computers powered by renewable energy.”
Castillo will play an important role with the microgrid. He’ll be in charge of administering the energy coming out of the sonnenbatterie to make sure the school isn’t using too much energy. He’ll monitor it on the battery’s display, which will read something like, “at current consumption, four hours remaining.” Sonnen has had some projects fall through because institutions didn’t have anyone to do that job.
Now, students at S.U. Matrullas can return to business as usual, spending their time learning computer skills and eating fresh, healthy foods—not worrying about the lights going out.