The Off-Grid Poster Child

SUBHEAD: After the disaster of hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is ripe to be the place to find stand-alone off-grid living.

By Juan Wilson on 20 September 2018 for Island Breath -
(http://islandbreath.blogspot.com/2018/09/off-grid-poster-child.html)


Image above: Electricity poles and lines lie toppled on the road after Hurricane Maria hit the eastern region of Puerto Rico. Photo: Carlos Giusti. From (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-truth-about-hurricane-maria-1537129890).

Well before hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017 the infrastructure of the power grid had deteriorated to the point of fragility not seen elsewhere in America.

That grid was the responsibility of The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). PREPA is a government-owned corporation of Puerto Rico responsible for electricity generation, power distribution, and power transmission on the island. Hurricane Maria demonstrated that PREPA was a failure and that it would not have the vision or resources needed to serve Puerto Rico.

Without the resources to repair what had been a frail and failing system, Maria provided a death blow to PREPA. The Puerto Rican people tuned to gas operated electrical generators that had been purchased by people who could afford them for the frequent PREPA blackouts. After Maria things got nasty. Neighborhoods strung extension cords between homes in suburban neighborhoods. They got by with less.

There were some isolated small scaled solar photo-voltaic electric systems in place - and they became important. The Wall Street Journal reported (https://www.wired.com/story/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-recovery/):
In the town rural town of Adjuntas, nestled in the mountains about an hour and a half southwest of San Juan, an NGO dedicated in part to solar power, called Casa Pueblo, became a pillar of the local recovery. 
When the town’s 18,000 residents were cut off from the rest of the island after Maria, the NGO’s solar-­powered radio helped authorities find out which roads were clear and which families were in danger, and attend to emergencies when the central government and federal authorities were not yet responding. 
Casa Pueblo subsequently gave out some 14,000 solar-powered lamps and also offered a solar-charged satellite phone at its offices for locals to use. At any given time, five to 10 people waited to make a call.

Arturo Massol, the associate director of Casa Pueblo and an ardent evangelist for decentralized, renewable energy, described what was happening on the island as “an energy insurrection.” Ordinary Puerto Ricans, he said, had woken up to the fact that when it came to electricity, they would have to look for alternatives.
This is part of a real solution. But that is not the direction that Puerto Rico is going. Instead the US government is planning on financing the privatization of PREPA through the creation of the “Puerto Rico Energy Transformation Administration (PRETA) that would provide guarantees (with US tax payer's money) for private energy corporations to rebuild the Puerto Rican grid. According to Debt Wire (https://www.debtwire.com/info/prepa-federalization-draft-bill-floating-congress)


Still in rough draft form, a bill tentatively titled the “Puerto Rico Energy Stabilization and Hurricane Resiliency Act of 2018” delineates specific steps to have the federal government—via the DOE—take over PREPA, impose a temporary administrator to supersede Puerto Rico’s Energy Commission ratemaking power, establish a corporation to issue restructuring bonds, and create special investment assurance accounts as part of the utility’s ongoing privatization process.
Here on Kauai the failure of privately owned Kauai Electric took a different but similar turn.

Those with long memories know what happened when the privately owned Kauai Electric called it quits. We paid off the "stake holders" a couple hundred million dollars of borrowed money to create a the debt ridden Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC). We now pay about the highest rates in the country.

Like Puerto Rico, Kauai is a stand alone grid on an isolated island. What energy it produces is all the energy it will have available. To its credit, KIUC has aggressively been adding solar voltaic power generation capacity. But it has not encouraged Solar PV stand alone systems.

Instead it encourages "co-generation"... the placement of PV systems on individual homes to supplement KIUC power generation. Co-gen certainly can reduce KIUC's high price for grid power, but it is, by my observation,  no real incentive to reduce power consumption.

Co-gen also means some resilience capability if the grid goes down because of a natural disaster, electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) or other disaster.

But KIUC suffers from the same vulnerability that Puerto Rico faced when Maria struck. All the power distribution is provided by poles and large hurricane can knock those poles down like a house of cards. That happened on Kauai with hurricane Iniki in 1992. But instead of burying the power distribution lines (as is done in most modern community planning) Kauai Electric simply re-erected the old creosote soaked wooden power poles.

Stand alone solar power systems have several advantages if they are not backed up by a electric grid or fossil fuel powered generator.
  • They absolutely limit the consumption of power to the amount of energy collected from the sun.
  • They require customer awareness of usage and some maintenance encouraging greater self reliance.
  • They reduce overall power consumption by high energy appliances like microwave ovens or air compressors.
  • They are resilient in that only the minority of systems that are hit directly by a disaster are damaged.
  • They wean us from living outside the limitations of energy not supplied by nature where you live.  
What we found was that having multiple independent stand alone PV systems is a real advantage. We stumbled into that situation by slowing adding systems over time. We started with a single panel and added increasingly bigger systems over almost a decade as we gained experience and knowledge.

All our systems use an array of one of two battery types. One type are high capacity 12volt 110amp-hour lead acid deep cycle batteries available on Kauai. The other type are 6v 405 amp-hour AGM (absorbant glass mat) batteries.

There are two AGM systems.

One is attached to our circuit breaker panel-box. This is where KIUC used to hook up. We had KIUC come and take off the meter and wiring to our house. This systems powers all the switches and outlets built into the house.

The second AGM system is attached to a power inverter providing energy for our new refrigerator and freezer. See (http://islandbreath.blogspot.com/2018/09/freezers-up-and-running.html).

The five other systems are smaller for specific tasks using smaller power inverters.
  • One provides counter lighting and strip outlets for our kitchen as well as our guest bathroom.
  • A second one provides lighting and a power strip to our master bedroom and its bathroom.
  • A third one provides lighting and a power strip  (for tool battery charging) in shop/utility room.
  • A fourth provides power for and office computer, wifi system and small appliance batteries.
  • A fifth provides power to a stand-alone shack that serves as a guest house. 
This overlapping redundancy has proved to be valuable. Any one system can go down and we can work around the problem by switching plugs in outlets and/or swapping around compatible batteries.

Redundancy is good. We had a neighbor who went with KIUC co-gen. After about a year the single co-gen system inverter failed and her solar panels were providing nothing to reduce her energy bill. The installer claimed it was out of warranty and not their problem. It took over year to get the system up and working agian.

Looking to the future my advice, as usual, is learn to and act to:
  • Grow your own food
  • Collect your own water
  • Produce your own energy
  • Make and repair what you can.
The alternative is sitting around a fire with pointy sticks.

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