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Schools Stronger than Storms

One year ago, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, causing the largest power outage in US history. Puerto Ricans, on average, suffered without electricity for three months, many for almost a year, as recovery officials struggled to repair what was already a poorly maintained and inefficient electrical grid. This prolonged power outage, along with other damaged infrastructure, drove hundreds of thousands of people to leave Puerto Rico, hurt an economy already suffering a decade-long recession, and inhibited access to critical services such as health care and clean water. Marta Rivera, a resident of Arecibo, told the Guardian about her experience during the storm. She said that when her home was destroyed, “we were taken to a hospital and it collapsed while we were still there. There was a hole in the roof and the water was coming in.…I had diabetes and now I’m a cancer patient. I had a relapse because of what happened; I didn’t have the medicine I need. I still have trouble getting the medication.”

Many in Puerto Rico, like Rivera, have experienced health complications due to the storm. A study by George Washington University now puts the death toll at an estimated 2,975 people, roughly the same as resulted from the September 11 attacks.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria severely impacted families and children. Parents were unsure when power would return and when schools would reopen. Many sent their children to the mainland to prevent large gaps in their children’s schooling. Children who stayed in Puerto Rico had to learn to live with pervasive uncertainty and adjust to departures among their friends and families. Many had to move to new schools as many schools were permanently closed, and waited for months with little to do before schools could reopen. Following Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rico public school system was closed for two months and many schools were limited to half days even seven months after the storm, due to a lack of reliable electricity. Save the Children, an international nonprofit working in Puerto Rico, estimates that these grid outages have resulted in the loss of more than 13 million cumulative days of learning for school-aged children in the months following Maria. It may take years to fully quantify the impact of this tragedy. Despite the overwhelming challenges, some near-term responses can help strengthen Puerto Rican communities.

To assess and address the need for reliable electricity at public schools, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is working with Save the Children and the Kinesis Foundation to help provide reliable, renewable power to schools in 12 municipalities that were heavily impacted by Hurricane Maria. The joint RMI and Save the Children team visited and interviewed many school staff across Puerto Rico, who shared the challenges of trying to manage a school with little or no electricity. Many principals remarked that immediately after the storm, government communication was disseminated via email—a challenge for those who had no access to working computers or internet in their communities. Even as some schools regained power, many remained closed or offered partial working hours because they lacked electricity to provide basic services such as running water and lunch for children.

Opportunities and Challenges for Renewable Microgrids in Schools

Typically, schools with backup generation depend on diesel generators. Although an effective solution for short-term outages, these systems depend on imported fuel that can be difficult to obtain after a major disaster. Furthermore, these generators provide no value to a facility when the grid is operating normally and require regular and costly maintenance. Instead of giving every school a diesel generator, it is worth considering the value renewable microgrids can provide schools. (In the context of this blog, we define a renewable microgrid as a combination of renewable power-generation resources, storage, and electrical infrastructure that allows these assets to operate autonomously from the broader grid when needed and can remain connected to the grid during normal conditions.) What we are discovering in our work with public schools in Puerto Rico is that renewable microgrids have the opportunity to provide value both during grid outages and when the grid is functioning normally. These systems, when paired with energy efficiency retrofits, can reduce carbon emissions associated with the electricity sector, improve resilience of infrastructure, improve the functioning of the grid, serve as a teaching tool, and save money on operating costs.

Although there are many potential benefits of renewable microgrids to schools, we recognize that resources are limited and the need to secure electricity is great. To address this, RMI has been working with schools and our partners to design systems that provide power to only the critical services required for school operation when the grid is down. When talking to administrators across Puerto Rico, we consistently heard that schools, at a minimum, need electricity for refrigerators, limited lighting, water pumps, and some working computers. By sizing the microgrids to power essential services, we are able to support as many schools as possible while ensuring that each solution is tailored to the specific needs of a school.

When aggregating the impact of projects at several schools, these systems can provide cost savings to the Puerto Rican Department of Education (PRDE). The energy efficiency interventions and the electricity that these systems generate represent energy that the PRDE does not have to purchase from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Energy efficiency investments can also help reduce the investment costs of the renewable microgrid system. Our analysis suggests that for every percent in energy savings achieved, we are able to reduce a microgrid’s investment cost by about one percent. Generally, the cost of common energy efficiency investments are significantly less than that of a renewable microgrid investment, making energy efficiency an effective cost-saving mechanism when installing these systems. Additionally, when these systems generate excess electricity and export it to the grid, often when school is not in session, the PRDE can be compensated for this by the utility, further reducing its operating costs.

Furthermore, the PRDE and PREPA can both take advantage of batteries on these renewable microgrid systems. When the grid is down and there is a lack of solar insolation, schools can use the batteries to ensure uninterrupted learning, and under normal grid operation conditions, PREPA can dispatch these batteries to provide grid services such as load shifting and frequency regulation. Using our project as an example, 12 school renewable microgrid systems sized only to meet their critical loads can lead to about half a megawatt-hour (MWh) of available battery technology on the grid. There are other nonprofits working on similar efforts that may install up to 100 renewable microgrids at schools, potentially leading to a total storage resource of over 10 MWh. Beyond schools, RMI estimates that at least 100 MWh of distributed storage is being added to Puerto Rico’s grid in 2018 alone, representing an enormous additional grid benefit that can be piloted with schools.

Unfortunately, many of the potential benefits of these systems cannot currently be harnessed. One of the major barriers we noted on our site visits was the lack of incentives for school administrators to save energy. Most school administrators have no insight into the energy consumption of their school and don’t see their electricity bill, making it difficult to change energy consumption behavior. Even for motivated school administrators who want to reduce their energy consumption, the PRDE has to continue to work with PREPA in order to ensure that changes in energy consumption are accurately measured and reflected on its bill. Beyond simply improving billing accuracy, PREPA and the PRDE should work collaboratively to ensure these systems are adding valuable services to the grid and being compensated appropriately for those services. Currently, power generated by the microgrids at these schools can be net metered so that excess solar generation can be credited to the school’s electricity bill. Although that is a great start, there is currently no compensation mechanism that allows PREPA to take advantage of the storage assets located throughout its grid.

Causes for Hope

In the year since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, many have asked if Puerto Rico is better prepared for the next storm. The answer is: only somewhat. The grid is still fragile, resources are limited, and communities and institutions remain resource-constrained. However, the people of Puerto Rico are adamant in their self-determination. Through our work, we have met people working tirelessly to ensure that we learn from Hurricane Maria and that Puerto Rico is able to better withstand future shocks.

This week, in Orocovis, RMI and Save the Children, with the support of the Kinesis Foundation, will inaugurate our first renewable microgrid project for a public school in Puerto Rico. Thanks to the nonprofit academic organization and several other generous donors, a 15 kW solar photovoltaic array and a 34 kWh lithium-ion battery system will ensure that 234 elementary students have a more resilient school to depend on. The system serves as a teaching model for the school and, in the future, can demonstrate new ways of partnering with the utility.

Systems like this one are popping up all over Puerto Rico, proving that positive transformation can happen in the aftermath of a disaster. There is still much more to be done to ensure that Puerto Rico is able to withstand future storms. RMI is proud to be working with Save the Children to ensure that Puerto Rico’s future leaders can continue to make Puerto Rico a resilient place.

If you are interested in learning more or supporting Puerto Rican schools and recovery, please reach out to Ana Sophia Mifsud (amifsud@rmi.org) or Roy Torbert (rtorbert@rmi.org).