Dozens of microgrids are deployed at schools across Puerto Rico, bringing reliable, resilient power to the island. The project, featuring solar plus storage, is an important part of the region’s recovery from a series of natural and economic disasters.
Puerto Rico has been battered by natural disasters in the past few years. The island has been hit by destructive hurricanes and earthquakes, all while in the midst of a years-long economic downturn.
An economic recovery, which will likely require more investment and private capital from both the U.S. mainland and foreign companies, is an important step in stabilizing life on the island. Part of that recovery relies on rebuilding, and expanding, Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure.
Hurricane Maria in 2017 wiped out power across the island, leaving 3.4 million residents without electricity, and highlighted the need to improve the territory’s aging power generation and distribution infrastructure. It also brought calls for new investment in projects to bring more reliability and resilience to Puerto Rico’s power supply.
“As humans, we’re pretty terrible about thinking about how to plan for the future we want, until we have to deal with it,” said Chris Johnson, CEO of Blue Planet Energy, a battery-based microgrid solution provider helping build a better future for Puerto Rico. Blue Planet Energy, along with the American Red Cross, has equipped more than 110 schools across the island with battery systems charged by solar energy, an effort known as the Puerto Rico Solar Schools Project.
“We partner with mission-driven organizations to pull stuff like this off,” Johnson told POWER in a recent interview, noting that communities often require education to understand such projects and the benefits of clean energy. “Red Cross was bringing this vision to Puerto Rico before Puerto Rico even knew they needed it,” he said. “Our partners were bringing forward-looking solutions.”
The need became clear after Hurricane Maria. The Solar Schools Project selected sites that were designated as emergency shelters by the Puerto Rican Housing Authority, shelters that in the past few years have been needed on several occasions. The sites play a crucial role for Puerto Rico’s communities in times of emergency, providing food and shelter to residents impacted by natural disasters, and serving as a mission control center for non-government organizations to strategize disaster relief efforts, gather supplies, and communicate recovery plans.
The Solar Schools Project is providing a so-called “roadmap to resiliency” for other communities to follow, both in the U.S. and globally. Its importance is being recognized with POWER’s Distributed Energy Award.
Solar + Storage
The Solar Schools Project provides 5.7 MW of solar power and 11 MWh of energy storage. Schools have been outfitted with rooftop solar panels, with energy storage provided by Blue Planet Energy’s Blue Ion systems. The company’s Blue Ion Ferrous Phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries require no rare minerals and remain stable even in challenging physical conditions, such as the tropical heat of Puerto Rico, which is a key safety consideration in a school and emergency shelter environment. They also offer 100% discharge capability, enabling use of the entire battery. The Red Cross selected Blue Ion for these projects because of the robust company support, an industry-leading warranty, and its track record of quality and reliability.
✔ The Solar Schools project installed two solar+storage microgrids at each site—one for the shelter’s kitchen and another for its living area—for improved resiliency.
✔ After earthquakes hit Puerto Rico in January 2020, the sites were up and serving as community kitchens to hundreds of residents.
✔ A diverse assemblage of governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private businesses assisted in this inspired rebuilding effort.
✔ The local Puerto Rican workforce was trained in renewable energy technologies and utilized for all installations, leading to many new jobs in the area.
Gaby Perez, the Puerto Rico-based regional sales manager for Blue Planet Energy in the Caribbean and Latin America, told POWER how the project came to fruition. “I had a connection with the Red Cross, and they wanted to develop projects in Puerto Rico,” Perez said. “No not-for-profit agency prior to Hurricane Maria was doing any solar projects, so this was totally new for Red Cross, and this was happening because they didn’t trust the government, because of the reputation for a lot of delays” in projects when the cash-strapped government became involved.
“We had a meeting with them and we discussed the project,” Perez said. “I gave them [a list of] seven installers in Puerto Rico that had the funding capacity and expertise in doing these types of projects. Prior to Hurricane Maria, the only experience we had was in grid-tied systems. After the hurricane hit, that opened the eyes of everyone to the need for more reliability and resilience. Suddenly, we had all these [damaged] solar panels and they weren’t working, so we brought in batteries.”
Each school has two independent microgrids, with one for the shelter/school and one for the kitchen. The microgrids are composed of multiple solar arrays that charge a large battery bank, where the school can store energy to use overnight, on cloudy days, and when the grid is down, and inverter systems that convert the stored energy into usable alternating power for the shelter/school and kitchen.
Lee Vanessa Feliciano, regional executive of the American Red Cross Chapter in Puerto Rico, at last year’s celebration of “World Red Cross Day” noted the Solar Schools project. “It gives us great satisfaction to know how far we have come with this project that will be of benefit not only for the school, but for the entire community adjacent to the school,” Feliciano said.
Perez said the project also has been important during the coronavirus pandemic. “The schools are providing food during COVID-19, and after the earthquake,” he said, noting the earthquake swarm that struck the island across several days in late December 2019 and early January of this year. At least 11 of those quakes were magnitude 5 or greater. “We’re seeing that tendency of having reliable power in schools, and now in hospitals, the importance of having resiliency for hospitals, and for business continuity,” Perez said. “We’re seeing hospitals and banks putting in solar and batteries, and adding a generator. They’re looking at ways of having different options” for backup power.
Providing Shelter, and Power
The Solar Schools Project has been a large undertaking, beginning with pilot projects at the Ramón Quiñones Medina School in Yabucoa, and the Leoncio Meléndez School in Las Piedras (Figure 1). Some of the issues considered in selecting the schools, according to the Red Cross, were that the facilities have the capacity to serve between 80 and 500 people seeking shelter, could support the communities most affected by Hurricane María, and that the schools are located in isolated areas, often the first to lose power in a disaster.
1. Equipment in the control room of Escuela Leoncio Meléndez, a school in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, includes Blue Planet Energy’s Blue Ion energy storage system. The school was one of the first two pilot installations for the Solar Schools Project. Courtesy: Blue Planet Energy
“We trained the workers, and then the Red Cross took over the projects,” Perez said. “They did two microgrids in each school, about 50 kW in PV [photovoltaic solar], about 25 kW of solar in each microgrid, [and] about 100 kWh in storage. These schools have been used as refuge, so when the hurricane came, the schools were open, but there was no power. We put in these microgrids, to power the cafeteria to cook food, and to power five or six classrooms, to power equipment or medical devices, phones, etc.”
An additional benefit with the microgrid system is that during normal or non-emergency operation the systems help each school by reducing their energy use and providing cost savings. And if the school experiences a power outage, the control system dynamically changes from a normal self-consumption mode to full backup mode.
Companies whose equipment is being used in the microgrids include Schneider Electric, which provided Conext XW+ hybrid inverters and MPPT 80 600 charge controllers, and SMA. Companies involved in the solar install work include AZ Group, Alten Energy, Aireko, Green Energy & Fuels, Pura Energia, Dynamic Solar, and ISO Group. The installed solar panels, which came from Qcell, Longi Solar, and Canadian Solar, have the capacity to withstand winds of up to 160 miles per hour.
The Red Cross’ backing of the project includes at least three years of maintenance support. The effort has been done in coordination and in collaboration with Puerto Rico’s Education Department, the Public Buildings Authority, and the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resiliency, known as COR3. The Red Cross also is working with Water Mission, a nonprofit partner, to install solar microgrid power systems supporting community wells in Puerto Rico, so residents can access clean and safe water during emergencies.
“The main purpose of this project was to create resiliency,” said Johnson. “It has done much more. It created a lot of jobs, it’s brought people back to the island, people who wanted to be involved with renewable energy and bringing this type of technology to the island. It’s opened the eyes of manufacturers and other market players who now see what the island has to offer.”
“This island has been hit hard,” said Perez, a lifelong resident of Puerto Rico. “We’ve been in an economic crisis, the government has been [economically] broke, with the hurricane, and the earthquake, and the change in government, and now COVID. This island is resilient, and the main focus is to put this resiliency into power to support our communities.” ■