Days became weeks, then months of darkness at the tiny SU Manuel Ortiz school after Hurricane Maria in September 2017 obliterated Puerto Rico’s already fragile power grid and set in motion the longest outage in U.S. history. Atop a mountain in a place called Yabucoa – the storm’s Ground Zero – relief from the fallout didn’t come quickly. Some worried that with the steep terrain, toppled trees and the isolation, would help ever come at all?
That anguish lingered for nearly a year until power from the island’s problematic grid finally surged again to principal Rosa Marte’s 140-student school. But with that wait, a couple of silver linings: The spartan, concrete school – newly painted canary yellow and blue after Maria left it looking stripped as if it’d been pounded by a pressure hose – won’t ever have to fret again about losing the lights, courtesy of a new device signifying the school’s insurance policy against tomorrow’s grid calamities.
And ultimately, that “SunCrate” saved that school.
In mid-August of 2018, just days before the dawn of another school year, the school’s patrons joyously welcomed the new, solar-driven power source that had trekked thousands of miles by truck and ship from America’s heartland. Stationed near the small playground, the scalable, plug-and-play module – roughly half the size of a railroad boxcar and first conceived to power Iowa hog farms – took a star turn the instant it first went on line at the school during a ceremony that drew dozens of cheering patrons.
A coalition led by Black & Veatch – a century-old designer and builder of power solutions – made it happen, donating tens of thousands of dollars in technology along with the manpower that put it in place.
With the debut of the trusty way of capturing Puerto Rico’s relentless sunshine and convert it to storable, reliable power, worries about future electricity disruptions at the school vanished. Away went the need for costly, noisy and polluting diesel-powered generators routinely deployed after disaster hits.
And gone was talk of that the school would be mothballed under a sweeping islandwide school consolidation plan launched even before Maria made landfall. While the SU Manuel Ortiz school was to have been among hundreds of Puerto Rican schools eventually shuttered to deal with the island’s crippling debt, Black & Veatch’s Charles Moseley says officials reversed that decision after learning that the SunCrate was headed Yabucoa’s way.
“We’re very proud of that,” Moseley, a program director in Black & Veatch’s water business, said of SunCrate’s role in sparing the school.
SunCrate is "inspirational. It gives people hope."
Puerto Rico education officials cast the SunCrate – a testament to cheaper, greener power for the school – as an aspirational vision of sweeping uses and opportunity for the struggling, storm-prone island.
To Giovannia Granja Garcia, a married mother of three, getting power resilience is a gesture reminiscent of the life in the wake of the storm: Neighbors helping neighbors, sharing everything from water and food to the sweaty chore of muscling away trees and other debris.
“We didn’t think (the storm) would be of such great magnitude like what we experienced,” she said, vividly recalling that the storm “affected all of us in one way or another.” Locals “didn’t have food. They didn’t have water. They didn’t have basic things.”
But now, she boasts, they have never-ending power.
How it Works: A Peek Inside
Using a Black & Veatch-developed design and crafted by SunCrate Energy, the modular SunCrate uses solar PV panels, inverters and batteries to store and provide electric power, potentially in support of critical services such as police, fire, schools, clinics and other community level sites.
Electricity for the Yabucoa school is generated by 325-watt CS6U-Poly solar modules donated by Canadian Solar, one of the world's biggest solar power companies and a leading maker of solar photovoltaic modules. California-based Tesla contributed advanced battery energy storage through various Powerwall units capable of storing excess solar power and delivering it outside peak generation periods. Lloyd Electric Co. of Wichita Falls, Texas, partnered to support delivery and installation of the SunCrate in Yabucoa.
On the ground in Yabucoa, the SunCrate will substantially lower the school's electricity costs as a reliable source of renewable energy while strengthening the site’s function as a designated community emergency response center in the event more natural disasters strike.
All the while, teachers and administrators there prize the aspirational aspects of it: As a real-life science lesson that could stoke the imagination of students, perhaps steering them into engineering careers.
“Really, this was a labor of love,” Moseley said of the push to bring SunCrate to the school and its beleaguered patrons.
"When you're bombarded on the TV over and over again about the power problems in Puerto Rio and you have the technology and the people to solve it, I just found it impossible not to act... And they're doing great. I've been monitoring the system from here via the app and they are still losing (grid) power three to four times a week but they're able to keep the school online because of the SunCrate. That makes me feel really good, and I'd love to do it again."
SunCrate: The Big Picture
While utilitarian in stepping in when a traditional power grid falls short, SunCrate has broad potential applications in conflict/post-conflict environments and in rural electrification efforts in the developing world, serving as a resilient source of electricity. The system's flexibility cuts fuel costs to a fraction of a generator's typical consumption when they are used around the clock with maintenance requirements.
“The beauty of the SunCrate is that we can roll it out very quickly,” Black & Veatch’s Moseley said. “Once we get it on site, in just a few days power is back and restored. We do not need a large footprint,” sparing the need for time-consuming rooftop installation of solar panels.
“We’re entering a time of change in the energy storage market,” he added, noting that declining costs of solar panels have coincided with sharp increases in battery storage capabilities. “For the first time, we’re really in a position where the industry is going to be able to fuel a rural electrification revolution. A distributed energy revolution whereby we’re going to be able to get power cheaply out to places that have never had power before.”
A SunCrate can generate 23 to 156 kWh per day and store 10kWh to 135kWh, depending on configuration. A SunCrate's power generation and storage capacity can be easily scaled through daisy-chained configurations to accommodate larger buildings and loads. The unit in Puerto Rico’s Yabucoa will provide an estimated 52 kWh of storable power without requiring use of costlier diesel-powered generators and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
At the moment of an outage, Moseley says, the school “will continue receiving electricity seamlessly,” thanks to the SunCrate.
“They won’t even know that the grid has gone down.”