Orocovis sits right in the mountainous middle of Puerto Rico. It’s one of the island’s “more remote areas with challenging terrain” that on Thursday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said may not have electricity restored until April or May.
The town hasn’t had grid-connected power in the four months since Hurricane Maria. Instead, like many others on the island, Orocovis residents have been relying on costly generators. Alberto Melendez Castillo, the director of the S.U. Matrullas school there, said residents have also had to rely on canned food and milk.
This week, Sonnen and Pura Energía, a local solar installer, announced they’d brought two storage-plus-solar systems online at SU Matrullas. Now, Castillo says that teachers can use their computers, the school’s 150 students have enough light to do homework, the school's kitchens have running refrigerators, and the community has an off-grid center to help them weather the next storm.
While it may take months for workers from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and mainland mutual aid crews to connect Orocovis back to the grid, the school can continue operating with the help of a 15-kilowatt rooftop solar system and two batteries -- one 4 kilowatts/8 kilowatt-hours and the other 8 kilowatts/14 kilowatt-hours.
Even after grid-connected power becomes available, said Castillo, the school plans to stay disconnected and run on its own energy. Plans for a water collection and purification system would make the school an entirely independent lifeline for the community in the case of another disaster.
Castillo said the school isn’t stepping away from grid connection because the community lacks confidence in PREPA or the government, but rather because the system will lower electricity costs. The project in Orocovis represents a larger trend in Puerto Rico, where residents -- especially those who can independently afford it -- are investigating renewables and storage systems that support an off-grid lifestyle.
As the territory’s government looks to privatize its utility and haltingly moves forward on plans for a less-centralized grid powered by more renewables, interest in leaving the grid altogether has grown. In a Feb. 14 status report, PREPA reported that the utility had restored power to about 76 percent of customers. On Friday, the island's federal oversight board scrambled to get a $300 million loan, with warnings that the utility would soon have to ration service if the money didn't come through.
“I’m hearing a lot of talk about going off-grid,” said Adam Gentner, director of business development and Latin American expansion at Sonnen.
Solar-plus-storage is not yet a mainstream technology, especially not in the U.S. Most applications are niche and uneconomical, even in the most favorable markets -- although that is changing. Dire circumstances have compelled Puerto Ricans to become energy experts in a hurry.
“Very few people really looked at storage as a solution, because -- well, they saw it as something costly and that...it was not a critical need,” said David Portalatin, CFO at local solar contractor Pura Energía. “Now, what Puerto Rico is talking about is having energy independence, and everyone wants battery storage.”
A natural disaster has turned into a value proposition for the technology.
“One thing I hear from every partner down here is that before the hurricanes, you always had to explain the value of solar and solar-powered off-grid backup systems to people. You had to explain why you would spend money on this, and why you need it, and what it does for you,” said Gentner. “Now, you don’t have to explain that to anyone in Puerto Rico.”
Since Hurricane Maria, Sonnen and Pura Energía have installed 10 solar-and-battery microgrids, including the two in Orocovis. The partners donated the equipment for each at a total cost of about $350,000.
Recently, their mission has shifted from emergency relief at critical load centers like a community-center-turned-shelter in Humacao and a children’s therapy center in Aguadilla, to providing "sustaining support” in remote areas that will continue to be without power for months to come. The Orocovis installation fits within that new direction.
The installs include laundromats, where residents can safely wash clothes without risking contamination and illness from bacteria, and locations with cellular routers, electrical outlets and refrigerators.
After installation, the sites become community-owned and -managed. Along with the logistical difficulties of reaching remote locations, Gentner and Portalatin said it has been a challenge to find a local site manager willing to shoulder a full-time, unpaid and hefty responsibility so many months after the hurricane, with much of the island still without electricity.
“It gets to a point where people get frustrated, I would say,” said Portalatin. “Because you can do this as a relief for a month, two months, three months, but it’s getting to a point where people are getting heartbroken and disillusioned with how this is all being rolled out on the island. […] This is not [an extremely] long-term solution; this is a solution that can work for a certain time. But at a point where your whole community doesn’t have light, we need to get long-term solutions to them and really fix the problem.”
Many Puerto Ricans are looking for long-term solutions on their own. On the for-profit side, Gentner said Sonnen’s business is also growing.
“In some instances, our business has become easier because people come seeking out a solar power backup system,” said Gentner. He added that Sonnen has seen growth since Hurricane Maria in part because it had landed several new partners just before the disaster. But he also thinks storage systems have “become far more mainstream” there as Puerto Ricans cope with the vulnerability of the central grid.
That’s "dramatically" changed business for Pura Energía as well, Portalatin said, which mostly focused on solar-only installations prior to the hurricanes. The contractor has repaired most of the damage to its residential and commercial customers, and is now working on many solar-plus-storage systems.
“Now, that’s what everyone wants,” said Portalatin. “It’s not an interconnected system -- it’s really an independent system, off-grid and microgrid.”
Gentner agrees that going off-grid is “a natural reaction to uncertainty.” But he said the growing desire to completely leave the grid has him worried about Puerto Rico’s future.
“I see a risk in Puerto Rico right now where there’s a lot of uncertainty with what’s going to come after PREPA. People don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gentner said.
According to Gentner, that’s led to more talk of grid defection -- that is, residents buying islanded systems and planning to stay off-grid for good.
That "is certainly something that our Sonnen battery can do, and something we’ve seen in our installations in Puerto Rico,” he said. “But our roots at Sonnen are in grid-tied energy storage.”
Gentner said Sonnen wants to build lines of communication with PREPA and other stakeholders to make sure that uncertainty and interest in off-grid systems don’t lead to a disjointed system.
Instead, Gentner envisions potential models like Germany’s, where Sonnen is based, with a “hugely decentralized grid,” and an open market for new utilities to join. Gentner said battery systems could connect into an island-wide virtual power plant, similar to Sonnen’s work in Germany and on the mainland.
Portalatin paints a similar vision, also referencing Sonnen’s example in Germany.
Though Portalatin said he sees Puerto Rico’s future -- like many on the island -- with a privatized PREPA, clean energy generation and microgrids, uncertainty is currently driving the conversation more than he’d like.
“What makes it complicated right now [is that] there are too many unknowns,” he said. “People are looking more into, 'How can I get the solution in my hands?' versus having to rely on PREPA to resolve the energy situation.”