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Op-Ed: Building P.R.’s solar energy storage workforce

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane María, an estimated 95% of the Caribbean island was without power or cell service, and more than half of the population did not have access to clean drinking water.

Three months later, 45% of the population — more than 1.5 million individuals — were still without electrical service and 14% continued to lack access to potable water. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló estimated that María caused more than $90 billion in damage to the island’s infrastructure

For Puerto Rico’s residents, these statistics tell a story of hardship and loss. However, what they fail to capture is the island community’s indomitable drive to not only rebuild its infrastructure, but to do so in a way that’s innovative, forward-looking, and that provides a resilience roadmap for communities in the U.S. and beyond to follow.

Puerto Rico is not acting alone in this ground-breaking effort. A diverse assemblage of governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private businesses are assisting Puerto Rico in its inspired rebuilding effort.

Team members from another island community, Hawaii-based energy storage developer Blue Planet Energy, have been actively involved in Puerto Rico’s hands-on rebuilding effort.

However, perhaps more importantly, since January 2018, the company has been directing resources and technical expertise toward training a new energy storage workforce on the island.

The benefits of energy storage
Before Hurricane María, some facilities in Puerto Rico such as hospitals relied on propane or diesel-fueled backup generators to provide power to critical loads during grid failures.

However, as facility operators quickly discovered, backup generators are only reliable as long as their fuel source is. In the event of widespread infrastructure disruptions like Puerto Rico experienced after María, fuel deliveries may be impossible for weeks or months.

The result is the breakdown of critical community resources such as health care, public safety including police and fire departments, business and financial services, potable water, sanitation, and groceries.

When coupled with charging sources such as solar and wind power, backup engine generators, or the utility grid, modern energy storage systems add resilience to critical infrastructure in the event of localized or wide-spread utility grid failures.

Well-designed on-site energy storage systems integrated with renewable charging sources provide a source of long duration independent power for not only business and critical infrastructure and services, but also individual homes.

Launched in 2015 by entrepreneur Henk Rogers, a founder of the Tetris video game franchise, Blue Planet Energy developed its Blue Ion energy storage system to offer simple, fast, and repeatable design and installation of commercial, municipal, agricultural and residential energy storage applications.

The Blue Ion system integrates with a diverse set of charge inputs that include solar and wind power, engine generators, and the utility grid. It uses fire-safe and non-toxic Lithium Ferrous Phosphate cells certified to global UL safety certification standards.

With a 15-year warranty and an operational design life of more than 20 years, Blue Planet Energy’s Blue Ion system is playing an essential role in the development of resilient power systems in Puerto Rico.

As a component of renewable energy systems, energy storage supports the utility grid by enabling higher capacities of solar and wind generation to feed the grid, and when necessary, these same systems can operate independently during short and long duration power outages.

Training a solar energy storage workforce
After Hurricane María, Blue Planet Energy’s initial efforts to support Puerto Rico included donating a Blue Ion energy storage system to power volunteer housing in Isabela for solar energy professionals coming from the mainland U.S.

It also teamed up with Water Mission, a nonprofit that builds sustainable clean water solutions in developing countries and disaster areas, to deploy solar and energy storage systems to restore potable water services in non-Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority communities.

Blue Planet Energy’s Vice President of Engineering, Kyle Bolger, and Vice President of Business Development, Gregg Murphy have donated hundreds of volunteer hours to these efforts.

During these new energy storage installation projects, it quickly became apparent to Bolger and Murphy that the needed to help develop local expertise in the design and installation of energy storage systems.

Bolger has over a decade of solar and energy storage training experience with Solar Energy International, a nonprofit energy training organization headquartered in Paonia, Colorado. As they scheduled training events across Puerto Rico, Bolger and Murphy’s confirmed their ideas on the importance of training,

“The information we presented at these early training events was so well received,” said Bolger. “The trainees were excited to learn about energy storage, and there was an immediate and crucial need to put what they learned into action in their communities.

Leveraging strategic partnershipsAs Bolger and Murphy trained individuals in the technical and business aspects of successful energy storage projects, they built relationships with Puerto Rico-based electrical supply wholesalers such as Glenn International and Warren del Caribe.

These partnerships accelerated their training efforts by introducing technical training on energy storage systems to large numbers of local electricians.

“With access to training, the quality, execution, and volume of energy storage projects installers were deploying throughout Puerto Rico was truly impressive,” Bolger said.

In addition to their partnership with nonprofit Water Mission, Blue Planet Energy also built strategic partnerships with global non-government organizations, including American Red Cross and Direct Relief.

“Our strategic partnerships in Puerto Rico are fundamental to our efforts of building more resilient communities, training energy professionals, and amplifying the impact of our collective experience, said Murphy.

American Red Cross, Blue Planet Energy, and contractors including AIREKO, Alten Energy, and Pura Energia are currently deploying more than 100 solar and energy storage systems in schools throughout Puerto Rico that will serve as community shelters in the event of future large-scale disruptions to the utility grid.

Blue Planet Energy also partners with solar equipment manufacturers including OutBack Power, Schneider Electric and SMA America to conduct trainings in Puerto Rico that cover solar and energy storage system design and integration.

The impact of training
The story of Lourdes Marcano, an electrical engineer with a Master’s degree in construction management perhaps best captures the impact of solar and energy storage training in Puerto Rico.

Marcano is the owner of the Bayamon-based installation company Solar Step, the first woman-owned solar installation company in Puerto Rico. She began installing solar-electric systems in 2015, and like most installers in Puerto Rico, the systems she designed and installed before Hurricane María did not incorporate energy storage.

After the storm, Marcano saw an opportunity in energy storage and the benefits it offers business and homeowners on an island where, in addition to seasonal Hurricanes, has poor electrical power quality and reliability in some areas.

Marcano participated in one of Bolger’s energy storage trainings in San Juan. She also attended his energy storage training at the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, California in the fall of 2018.
As her experience designing and installing energy storage systems grew, Marcano began training other individuals in the design and installation of solar and energy storage systems.

A volunteer of the education committee with the Association of Consultants and Contractors of Renewable Energy of Puerto Rico (ACONER), Marcano recently presented to a group of 25 women and shared her passion and expertise in renewable energy and storage systems.

Since January of 2018, Blue Planet Energy has trained close to 1,000 individuals in Puerto Rico in the design, installation, and business aspects of energy storage systems. Its training activities have expanded to include presentations to students at local technical schools such as Escuela Técnica de Electricidad with programs in Fajardo, Ponce, San Juan.

“The people of Puerto Rico are the most resilient I have ever met. Through training, Blue Planet Energy is empowering a new generation of energy professionals in Puerto Rico” said Murphy.

Bolger joined in, “I couldn’t agree more. They understand the benefits of solar and energy storage, and the resilience and independence these systems provide to local homes and businesses. Together, we’ve already built a solid foundation, and we’re just getting started.

Co-author Romina García is market and product strategist for Blue Planet Energy and Joe Schwartz is market development lead for Blue Planet Energy.

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