Microgrids, Solar

Haitian Solar PV Weathers Hurricane Irma

With the complete toll of Hurricane Irma beginning to reveal itself, renewable energy stakeholders take stock of lessons learned.

Haiti-based micro-utility start-up Sigora Haiti is one such group. Holding a concession from the government of Haiti to be sole power provider to some 200,000 in the northwest of the country, Sigora currently supplies power to some 8,000 people via three solar PV micro-grids in Môle-St-Nicolas, Jean Rabel, and Presqu’île.

Drew Lebowitz, Sigora’s vice president of operations, spoke with Renewable Energy World from the field about preparing for the hurricane and efforts underway since the storm.

“We take hurricane preparedness very seriously–Haiti is prone to the risks of tropical storms and hurricanes so it’s essential to plan for the worst. We’ve been lucky this time, but teamwork and planning certainly helped,” said Lebowitz.

By the time REW spoke with Lebowitz, Sigora had restored power to all of its customers after less than 10 hours of down time.

Fortunately, Haiti fell outside the path of Irma, which passed by some 65 miles north of the island’s coast during the early hours of Friday morning, September 8. Still, the region was battered with torrential rain and winds of up to 75 mph.

“Preparation and planning by our local teams helped ensure that our grids didn’t sustain extensive damage and also enabled us to get power back to our customers so quickly,” Lebowitz said.

Describing preparations that began some 72 hours before the storm, Lebowitz said: “Our broad plan was to have the people and equipment in place to undertake preventative work to minimize risks. So before the storm arrived we’re out cutting back trees, vegetation and branches to limit debris, and securing anything that might present a hazard once winds pick up.”

Features of Sigora’s solar PV modules at the recently completed 200-kW Môle-St-Nicolas grid also played a role in the preparations. Lebowitz explained: “The solar array is designed to resist winds of up to 145 mph; however, we also have the option, which many places do not, to remove the PV panels.”

Although the modules are rated to 145 mph, Lebowitz explained this measure is based on keeping foundations in the ground. “Even if the modules remain in place they can still get badly damaged by flying debris. By removing the panels, we protect them from severe damage, and reduce delays in repowering,” he said.

With its own labor force on the ground, Sigora was able to take down its 200-kW array in just four hours.

“The decision to pack up panels was taken about 24 hours before the storm hit—when Irma’s winds were reportedly reaching more than 185 mph—we think it was the right decision even if we didn’t take a more serious hit,” Lebowitz said.

At Sigora’s 3-kW solar PV pico-grid located at Presqu’île, panels couldn’t be removed, however the inverter was.

Shortly before the storm hit, Sigora powered down its grids as a preventive measure. “That means if we had shorts or problems, it’d happen in a state that lessens the danger,” noted Lebowitz.

Immediately after the storm passed, Sigora set to work with field inspections: checking for damage that was sustained by the grid infrastructure and clearing the system for re-energization. At the pico-grid where panels had been left in place, little to no damage was sustained.

“Panels are going back up right now,” Lebowitz said, expecting to be fully restored this week and back to where they were before the storm.

Lessons Learned

Sigora has clearly fared better than many others in the broader Caribbean region. Nevertheless, there are important takeaways from the event for Sigora, as well as solar PV manufacturers and grid operators.  

Lebowitz observed: “The experience has been a useful ‘fire-drill’ so to speak, preparing for what could have been much worse. We got lucky here. But we were happy with getting the plan in place, mobilizing people and equipment. Having gone through the process of preparing modules, removing panels, and seeing how long it takes, what’s required and so on, this is very useful.”

He added: “Perhaps the biggest thing we learned was the importance to establish something of a generic timeline in place for making decisions if similar preventative measures are required again. Knowing what to do 72, 48, and 24 hours out from the hurricane, alongside that preventative work, really saved us a lot of hassle and massive amounts of potential damage.”

He added that they are keeping an eye on the Hurricane Jose — “but luckily it’s looking like it won’t come our way. Still, we’ll be prepared for the next one.”

Looking forward, Sigora is raising capital to connect a further 145,000 customers within the next 12 months.

Lead image credit: Sigora.