Tag Archives: grid

The altE Store: Providing Solar Powered Disaster Relief in Puerto Rico

During times of disaster and tragedy, a quote from Fred Rogers (who you probably know better as Mr. Rogers of the eponymous children’s television show) often circulates to show the power of people banding together in difficult times.
“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.

Source

As a customer of the altE Store, you have lots of options at your fingertips. Any piece of equipment that you might need for your solar system is sold at the altE Store, including solar panels, racking, inverters, charge controllers, batteries, breaker boxes, PV wire, and more. You can purchase pre-designed systems in one package with a schematic on how to put it together, or you can have a design custom made for you. Lastly, you can purchase the solar equipment and install it all yourself, or you can have professionals come and assist in the installation as well. Through it all, the altE Store strives to provide flexibility to its customers, making headway towards their goal of “making renewable do-able.”

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.

Despite the swiftness with which these great groups were able to react to get equipment and teams of technicians in place to install it, make no mistake that this will be a very long rebuilding process. Many homes need to be rebuilt before solar systems can be installed, and beyond that there are still only so many people on the ground to install the equipment that it will take time. But that is why it is great that groups like these are going down to service the more needing locations with solar power while the utilities in Puerto Rico work to rebuild the existing grid system. Through it all, the hope is that in the end the electrical system will come out of it all more resilient, cleaner, and more affordable. Much has been made about the dire state the grid system of Puerto Rico was before Hurricane Maria, so the silver lining on this whole situation could be the replacement of that old and ineffective system.

In addition to this specific partnership with the New York City group, the altE Store has also been working to find and collaborate with other groups for the same sort of relief effort in Puerto Rico, offering free design and expertise to go along with heavily discounted equipment in order to provide for those who would otherwise be stuck without power.

Other efforts

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 pageTwitter 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 amy@altestore.com.

Conclusion

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.  

Federal Register Notice: Costs and Benefits of Net Energy Metering: Request for Information

I’ve been excited to write a first post in the ‘Checking in on the Federal Register’ article series, but have been waiting for the right Notice to be posted in the Federal Register. Today is finally that day, as the Department of Energy (DOE) published a Notice of request for information (RFI) in the September 15, 2017 issue of the Federal Register (82 FR 43345). This Notice is a rather brief one, so I would encourage you to read it yourself, in addition to reading this post where I’ll summarize the important details and pre-emptively answer any questions you may have.

What is an RFI?

If you’ve already read my Policy Rulemaking Process for Dummies article, you might be confused—RFIs don’t appear anywhere in that summary of the typical rulemaking process. However, an RFI falls into the category of situations where a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) is not the first Federal Register notice. An RFI is issued, such as in this case, when a topic is particularly complex or contentious, and so the agency solicits public feedback earlier in the process to ensure it has all the best and most up-to-date data and information available before beginning its analysis.



In this instance, DOE indicates they are preparing a cost/benefit study on net metering as a part of the Grid Modernization Initiative. DOE is likely seeking out all possible resources and data sets from stakeholders because net metering is a very contentious issue and it is crucial to have all possible information before digging into the study.

Background of Net Metering

According to DOE, net metering, or net energy metering (NEM), is the “the practice of using a single meter to measure consumption and generation of electricity by a small generation facility (such as a house with a wind or solar photovoltaic system). The net energy produced or consumed is purchased from or sold to the power provider, respectively.” Thus, when these customers who generate their own electricity have generated more power than they are using, they are able to sell back their excess electricity to the utility who controls the transmission and distribution system to which they are connected.

The debate on net metering often pits companies and customers installing rooftop solar panels against utilities. The main crux of the debate surrounds rate design and the issue of whether customers whose excess solar power gets sold back into the larger utility grid system should be credited at the retail rate of electricity or if that unfairly results in these solar customers not paying their fair share of the grid upkeep costs.

These disputes have been commonly going to courts in states with frequent residential solar power installations. For a quick rundown of where each state stood on laws regarding net metering (as of late 2016), see this summary by the National Conference of State Legislatures. For a summary of the most contentious net metering legal battles going on in 2017, see this write up by Utility Dive. However since this is such a common and frequent debate across many different states, the best way to see the latest news is a quick Google search—the most recent development coming from just approved rules and regulations for net metering in Nevada.

What is being requested

In short, this RFI is requesting that stakeholders submit any relevant data, studies, or information they have in regards to the costs and benefits of net metering. DOE specifically requests information from the perspectives of the utilities’ business interests, the rate-paying consumers, and those tasked with addressing the technical and operational challenges of net metering.

As such, this RFI casts a rather wide net as to who prospective stakeholders would be—not only will the expected utilities and energy advocates likely submit comments, but the door is open for any private citizen or group of citizens to express their thoughts and concerns. As mentioned in the Policy Rulemaking Process for Dummies article, comment periods such as this one represent the best opportunities for you, either as a private citizen or a member of an organization, to directly impact potential regulations that could have real impacts on your life.

While there are numerous public studies available that DOE can, and certainly already has, referenced for their information gathering process, the key to this comment request is that they would like those with deep knowledge and experience with the topic to provide comment and context on those existing studies (specifically citing studies done since the beginning of 2012). DOE is hoping to hear if stakeholders find there to be any flaws in commonly cited studies on the topic, information that is not discussed in those studies, or data/information that stakeholders may have internally that have not yet been made public. In essence, this RFI from DOE is indicating they are studying the costs and benefits of net metering, and if you have any information you think is important to be included in that study then now is the time to raise your hand. The analysis generated from the information in this RFI will ultimately be presented to Congress.

Note: I have in the works a post on how to submit the most effective public comments, so if there appears to be interest on this post regarding the net metering RFI then I’ll make sure to move up publication of that subsequent post to be helpful for commenting on this Notice in advance of the comment submission deadline.

UPDATE: See this blog post for advice on making an effective public comment

Summary of RFI details

  • DOE published RFI asking for comments on the costs and benefits of net energy metering (82 FR 43345).
  • Specific topics DOE is interested in receiving comments on include:
    • Motivations and policy context of cost-benefit analyses of net metering;
    • Types of costs and benefits that should be considered for net metering;
    • Methodology issues typically encountered in net metering studies;
    • Context for what drives differing costs or benefits in different net metering studies; and
    • Any emerging issues that should be considered in future net metering studies that may not have been relevant to studies in the past.
  • Comments are to be submitted by October 30, 2017.
  • Further information is available at the Notice’s online docket, and questions can be directed to Kate Marks at the DOE Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis.
  • Feel free to contact me, through the Contact page or commenting below, if you have any questions you think I could answer as well.

 

 

 

Updated on October 10, 2017

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.