What do you do when your cities are flattened by a hurricane, the already-crumbling power, water, and communication infrastructure gives up the ghost, and the official government assessment is several months to years before you are up and running again? You turn to the crowd.
The Overwhelming Grid Challenge
Like most everywhere in the developed world, the infrastructure of Puerto Rico is based on a large integrated grid that is dependent on all the pieces being in place. Right now, few pieces even remain intact. The poles are snapped, the lines are strewn across the landscape and the few generating plants are on again, off again. Power is key because water distribution depends on powered pumps. Telephone and Internet depend on power to the cell towers. No power, no electricity, no air conditioning, no running water, no cellular service. It’s not hard to understand how putting all that back together is going to take a long, long time.
The Achilles Heel of Restoration
The solution to quickly getting critical services up and running is to NOT try and solve the whole problem at once. Instead, carve out a small section and get it back in order. The rescue effort has, indeed, prioritized getting fuel and new generators to the hospitals. Getting the same to every household, business, and communications tower is not in the near-term. Once again, too many obstacles and too many interconnected pieces.
The big problem with traditional emergency power generators is that they are needy. They don’t generate any electricity unless you fuel them and keep the fuel coming. Wouldn’t it be better if you only had to put out the effort once to bring in the equipment and hook it up? What you need is a solution that runs itself unattended once you get it started.
Infrastructure in a Box
A company called Sunrun has what might be considered infrastructure on demand. They just swooped into Puerto Rico and set up two fire stations in San Juan and Utuado with power and water… in a couple of days, not weeks or months. Skeptical? Let’s have a look.
Here’s what to consider. A package of roof top solar panels, electronics, and batteries can fully power a single location, like a fire station, 24 hours a day. Clean water can be pulled from the humidity in the air by using more solar cells and batteries to perform the condensation. Once it is up and running, the installation crew can go to the next location and replicate the setup.
It should also be noted that Sunrun teamed up with the Puerto Rican firefighters, two charities: Empowered by Light and GivePower Foundation, and the Zero Mass Water SOURCE company. This is a relatively small, independent and highly motivated group that can move quickly and not get bogged down by too much bureaucracy.
A Step Further
The fire stations can be considered off-grid. They operate independently and if equipment problems plague one, the others are unaffected. A further enhancement is to have a cluster of these off-grid systems support each other in a micro-grid. Locations needing extra power can get it from other locations that have excess. A failure, say one solar panel, can be compensated by the micro-grid so that everyone continues to receive power.
Expand that thinking across the island of Puerto Rico. The micro-grid approach could evolve into a much larger collection of hundreds or thousands of independently generating solar and wind power systems and their associated batteries. No central generating systems would be needed. No fuels either. Pollution eliminated. Reliability enhanced.
Best of all, these independent power and water systems could be built simultaneously all over the island. No one has to wait until the wire can be run to their city. The systems can run independently until a grid structure can be installed to allow resource sharing.
Is it worth considering? The initial installations are already proving their value. Why go backwards to an older technology when there is such opportunity to build something up to date that will be much more robust in the face of hurricanes and other natural disasters in the future.