In the wake of the disasters in the Caribbean brought on by the recent hurricane season, there has been plenty of discussion about how solar generators can be a persuasive solution for cutting costs and increasing security. But when discussing portable solar in this context, it’s always relegated to the extreme peaks of disaster relief to provide short-term solutions for small problems.
Low-end portable solar panels are used to charge cell phones and laptops, or mid-range briefcase style systems might keep a small refrigerator running for insulin and food. High-end portable systems are powerful enough to tackle the big problems and save lives by keeping medical appliances running or power tools working on ground zero. But there’s also a long-term benefit to portable solar in disaster-prone areas like the Caribbean, even after life has returned to normal.
Besides the obvious like refrigeration, medical equipment, and communications, electricity is important for basic sanitation like powering water pumps. It can offer vital air conditioning in a place where hurricanes can be quickly followed by sweltering heat. And solar-powered lighting has been shown to reduce gender-based violence in Haiti and parts of Africa and Asia, and allow people to work, cook, and co-ordinate into the night.
And yet Puerto Rico’s power grid has been vulnerable for a long time, left to crumble by its ongoing crippling economy. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority alone is $9 billion in debt. This made it easy for Hurricane Irma and Maria to completely decimate the grid when they hit the Caribbean in September.
Hurricane Irma only swept along the side of the island, but that damage to the power grid alone caused catastrophic effects on the territory. Some 300,000 Puerto Ricans lost power before the hurricane even hit, and 1 million went dark when Irma swiped its side. Some parts of the island were predicted to be in blackout for up to six months before Hurricane Maria even made landfall, which knocked out the grid on the island completely.
Energy instability is nothing new for island nations in the Caribbean, but a completely compromised grid is just an all-too-possible nightmare. Caribbean islands face some of the highest energy bills in the world because of the cost of transporting fuel, which is expensive enough to stifle energy security in the Caribbean. The average electricity bill in the region is three to four times that of the U.S. or other developed countries. Even more so after a hurricane, as storm surge floods and contaminates fuel reserves and gas generators are left useless until new fuel can make its way in over the water.
Coordinating the distribution of new fuel delivered to the island is difficult and time consuming. Damage to ports and airstrips can put indefinite holds on supplies entering the island, and without power to communication and spatial tools to navigate these arrivals, it means an even longer delay before generators at hospitals and relief centers can run. In the case of Puerto Rico, at least two patients on life support died because the hospital’s generator ran out of fuel as thousands of pounds of emergency supplies were stuck at ports because of damaged roads.
Solar systems have a huge advantage because they can start generating power immediately without any fuel or fumes. With the Caribbean sunny climate, it’s easy to get the most out of solar panels. And because solar panels generate power autonomously, it means as many solar panels that survive the hurricane directly equals how much power Puerto Rico would continue to have available after the storm. In a tied-down grid system, this is not the case, as damage somewhere along a power line can cut off power for millions of users miles away.
Currently, companies like Tesla and Germany’s sonnen GmbH are donating large, residential battery and power management systems that would allow buildings to be completely powered off-grid by their solar panels even when the sun isn’t shining. But the panels usually installed by these companies in conjunction with these systems are rooftop solar panel arrays.
Those arrays are exposed to the elements year round. This permanent fixture solar infrastructure is at the mercy of the weather and easily destroyed by a hurricane capable of tearing trees from the ground.
With portable solar systems, the panels can be taken to secure locations indoors during the worst of the hurricane. If stored in the right locations with the right casing, these panels can be kept secure even against a hurricane like Maria, and keeping equipment intact through multiple, quick storms is a necessity.
Propositions for a solar-powered Puerto Rico are focused on a flexible microgrid model. Smaller, more localized grid generators are more manageable for repairs, and keeping electricity localized means less houses go dark when damage to that grid does occur. Renewable technologies like solar make microgrids more possible and affordable, and when combined with other proposed solutions, like underground power lines, they make for an appealingly resilient power grid.
Hurricane recovery efforts in a microgrid scenario would be able to manage repairs on solar arrays to scale available power back to regular potential, and never from a total black out, making the current humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico impossible to repeat.
When portable solar is used with integrated power storage systems like those of Tesla or sonnen, critical services can switch to the portable systems as soon as the local microgrid is down and recharge their residential storage as soon as the storm clears. This method could fill any energy gap for emergency centers running minimum critical services throughout the recovery period.
In addition, portable panels can be used year-round, but their ability to be secured and kept in safety is what can make them a valuable asset for an emergency preparedness plan. Ideally, anywhere safe enough to house people for a hurricane can also spare some room for a couple cases of solar equipment. The difference those systems could make in the aftermath can definitely be worth the investment.