“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words an I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in the world.’
Among the ‘scary things’ that hit the world recently were the series of hurricanes that hit the Caribbean and southeast United States. While there are countless examples of helpers during these hurricanes, one story came to my attention recently that merged the helpers with the world of energy. When Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico in early September, more than 1 million power outages were reported across the island. Less than a month later, Hurricane Maria hit the island (before power was able to be fully restored from the first storm) and left Puerto Island almost entirely without electricity.
While reading about this humanitarian crisis, I learned of a company, the altE Store, that was using its abilities and expertise in solar power to help design and implement affordable solar powered energy solutions in the impoverished regions of Puerto Rico. These areas were the ones that were likely be lower on the list of priorities regions for the utilities to restore power, and thus the ones that could use a helping hand the most in such a turbulent time.
When I heard about this project, two things came to mind. The first thought was how right Fred Rogers was about looking for the best in humanity who go out of their way to help when disaster strikes. The second was that I wanted to learn more about the organization behind these efforts. So I reached out to them and was able to speak with Amy Beaudet, self-described Solar Queen at the altE Store to learn about the company, their charitable and humanitarian efforts, and the future of solar power.
About the altE Store
The altE Store, or the Alternative Energy Store, was founded in 1999 to sell off-grid solar systems to people in remote locations (think islands off the coast of Maine). The altE Store has evolved with the ever-changing solar industry, growing to also provide systems that are tied into the grid, systems that are tied to the grid but also have on-site storage (see: microgrids), as well as systems that exist completely separate from the grid. The altE Store exists as a completely web-based enterprise with no physical locations. Because of this, they have been able to establish a global reach, having done business in all seven continents.
Education and outreach
Recognizing the value of having an educated customer base, the altE Store has been creating informative videos on solar power and solar systems for 10 years and has shifted even more focus into this side of the business in the past several years. The results have been pretty staggering, with viewers in over 200 different countries and extensive questions and requests frequently brought in the comment sections. Their goal has been to make sure accurate information is available for people getting started in solar power, curious potential customers, do-it-yourself enthusiasts, and anyone else interested in solar power– including technical information, product overviews, solar installation processes, and more. Engaging with these videos and blog posts ensures customers have a trusted and friendly face they can turn to with their solar needs, and spreading the message about the renewable energy source only helps the spread of the emerging technologies.
Response to Puerto Rico
The altE Store’s mission statement reads “Empowering the world one person at a time by providing renewable energy products, services and education.” That’s not just a lofty goal to them, though, and the situation in Puerto Rico that brought the altE Store to my attention demonstrates just that.
As the devastation from Hurricane Maria unfolded and many, including the people at the altE Store, watched from television and computer screens thousands of miles away and yearned to find something they could do to help. The team at the altE Store got in touch with a solar instructor who had worked with the company in the past and was working with a group in New York City looking to help in Puerto Rico as well. The New York City group was looking to send solar equipment to Puerto Rico, along with teams of people to install them, to help bring a source of immediate power to those who were looking at being left in the dark for weeks, if not months. Given the altE Store’s mission to bring renewable power where it is needed, this looked like a perfect opportunity for them to get involved.
Not only was this a great fit for the altE Store to get involved in the Puerto Rico recovery efforts, but that involvement happened at a pretty breakneck speed– for which the beneficiaries in Puerto Rico are surely grateful. Hurricane Maria made its way through Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It took a few days to truly understand the toll the storm took on Puerto Rico, and specifically the electrical system. The altE Store’s representatives first talked to the New York City group on Monday October 2. By Friday night, 2,000 pounds of equipment (inverters, charge controllers, and batteries) had been picked up from the altE Store facilities. This literal ton of equipment, which the altE Store provided at a heavily discounted price and at their own cost to provide, was combined with equipment donated from other sources. By Monday October 9, teams of solar technicians with the New York City group were on the ground ready to install the equipment that was en route to Puerto Rico. Not only that, but altE Store provided design work and schematics for the technicians to follow to install the equipment completely free. All of this work happened within just a few weeks of Hurricane Maria, and for absolutely no profit to the altE Store.
With regard to the equipment and teams sent down, their focused priority are where the most good can be done. This means getting power and light to central locations, like community centers and schools, so people can come to recharge their phones, radios, and lights, in addition to battery chainsaws needed to clear debris from roads. Additionally, locations integral to the sick and elderly, such as hospitals, are receiving solar power systems for cooling, medicine refrigeration, and the like. One interesting tidbit is that the word has been getting to the altE Store that the houses in Puerto Rico that already had solar panels installed in them are the ones that ended up keeping their roofs, while those without solar were more likely to lose their roofs. While this is anecdotal and might simply indicate that those who could afford solar also could afford more strongly reinforced buildings, it does provide a counterpoint to arguments that solar panels are no optimal for roofs within hurricane zones.
There is no shortage of opportunities for responsible companies, particularly in the energy business, to get involved in efforts to help out. In addition to the ongoing efforts in Puerto Rico, the altE Store got involved with the International Rescue Group to deliver emergency supplies to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew, specifically to build portable solar generators to charge cell phones of emergency responders, volunteers, and citizens. They even wrote and published for free do-it-yourself instructions for anyone to create their own solar generators for emergencies, preparation, or just as a self-education project.
For the areas of the United States outside of Puerto Rico that were hit by one of the several hurricanes, the altE Store is providing discounts to help them build or rebuild their solar systems to ensure their own power resilience. At 15 percent, this discount represents their biggest discount they’ve ever offered and they are stocking up their inventory to record levels to account for this influx of demand.
Lastly, the altE Store regularly donates or discounts solar equipment to worthy causes (schools, Boy Scouts troops, etc.). They shrewdly recognize the value in educating the public, creating excitement about the technology, and demonstrating how accessible it can be. On top of that, showing the potential of solar power and sharing it with people who need it the most in times of crisis is simply the right thing to do.
Keeping updated on this story
In addition to the previously mentioned blog posts and videos that the altE Store provides on its website, there are several social media outlets where you can hear updates on the Puerto Rico project as well as everything else the altE Store is doing.
The altE Store’s Facebook page, Twitter account, and Instagram page all provide regular updates on its projects. Additionally, you can sign up for the altE Newsletter through a link on their webpage. If you have any specific questions about this work or if you simply want to get in touch with the altE Store yourself, you can also reach out directly to Amy Beaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the end, the altE Store is a company who is in the business of selling solar systems to renewable-energy-seeking customers. They have many competitors in this market, they’re surely keeping an eye on government regulation of the solar industry, and they operate as any other business. But through their educational outreach and their desire to provide solar powered relief in the face of natural disasters show that they are also a forward-thinking energy organization who recognize the value of doing good in addition to doing good business. The altE Store should be commended for these efforts, and any other organization in the industry can take a page out of their book for how to use their influence for the common good.
About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.