Tiny Tuesday: Solar Power Can Save Puerto Rico

If you live in New England, you probably lost power last week, when high winds the night of October 29 knocked out electric lines throughout the region. Think about how you were inconvenienced during the hours or days you spent in the dark. Did you throw away food from your fridge? Go out of your way to find an open gas station or internet café? Move into a friend’s house or a hotel until things returned to normal?

Now consider this: It’s been seven weeks since Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, and most of the island is STILL without power. This week, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reports 37% power generation. On an island of 3.4 million residents, that means at least 2.1 million people (more than the population of New Hampshire and Vermont combined) have no electricity and haven’t since September.

As aid groups scramble to restore Puerto Ricans’ lives and governments make excuses for the lack of progress, one solution raises hope: standalone solar installations. Solar enables customers to generate their own power, circumventing the island’s aging power grid which will take many more months to repair. Puerto Rico has a high solar potential thanks to its tropical latitude and abundant sunlight, yet before Maria only 2% of the island’s power came from renewable sources.

Amicus, a solar company cooperative, has partnered with relief agency Amurtel to provide solar-powered portable charging stations. Their goal is to manufacture and deliver charging stations to Puerto Rico by the end of this year. They intend to lease the systems to communities at no charge, moving the systems around the island as need dictates.

Add a battery to the equation and solar can fully power a home off grid. You can’t generate solar power at night, and until recently this limitation required small solar installations to include a backup (or accept an occasional loss of power). But rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, such as the Tesla Powerwall, are now powerful and cheap enough to install in a home. Tesla has already donated a solar array to El Hospital del Niño Puerto Rico in San Juan, shipping and installing 700 PV panels in 8 days, and the company hopes to get many more essential buildings back on-line soon.

Tiny Tuesday: Energy Champs

Burlington Electric Department (BED) is piling on the accolades. Two years ago, Burlington became the first city in the USA to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources. Now, Seven Days reports that Burlington is the first city to offer an energy-audit program for all its renters and homeowners.

In a partnership with Vermont Gas, BED offers EnergyChamp, an online tool to help Burlingtonians determine their energy use and how they can save. Residents can visit https://energychamp.org to get started. Here are some of EnergyChamp’s most common suggestions for improving a home’s energy efficiency:

• Replace your hot water heater, furnace, and/or boiler with high-efficiency models: $2000-$9500 each. (Hot water heaters are the least expensive, boilers are the most.)
• Insulate your basement walls: $3.65 per square foot.
• Replace a bathroom exhaust fan: $150-$250.
• Seal air leaks: $300-$600 for a whole house.

There is nothing earth shattering in here. The innovation is that a cost/benefit analysis is now available as an online tool. Burlington homeowners can see their potential energy savings with very little effort up front, and that information may inspire action. EnergyChamp also displays all the rebates available efficiency-minded upgrades… especially for landlords, who can recoup up to 75% of their costs.

Vermont Gas customers who don’t live in Burlington still have the option of a free energy audit of their home. Start here: http://www.vermontgas.com/save-money-energy/ways-to-save/free-energy-audit/ The auditors book months ahead of time – I am currently scheduling an appointment for next spring. That speaks to the popularity of these programs.

Tiny Tuesday: Stress-Free Solar

Sunrun is a solar provider that takes care of everything – permitting, installation, and maintenance of your panels. The company pays 95% of their estimated solar production no matter how much energy your panels actually produce (smoothing out the cloudy days), and pledges to fix your solar panels at no cost if anything goes wrong. The company also offers a 10-year warranty on roof failure due to penetrations required to install the panels. (A standing seam metal roof is the only common roofing style that can hold solar panels without penetrations.)

Sunrun has two main options: lease or buy. The lease option costs almost nothing up front – precisely nothing for some customers – and offers immediate electric bill savings. It locks in a utility rate (with a maximum allowance for inflation) and the maintenance package for 20 years. The buy option is either a full payment up front or a PPA (power purchase agreement) in which a lender pays the cost of the panels in exchange for 10 to 20 years of reduced electric bill payments. Homeowners can only get incentives like tax credits if they own their panels.

I can’t figure out what happens after the 20-year lease period ends. Maybe Sunrun offers a package to renegotiate, and they disconnect if you decline? I have similar concerns for when you sell your home – does the buyer need to choose between picking up the lease and having a bunch of dead solar panels on their roof? Just a few things to ask about if you consider this company’s offer of stress-free solar.

Learn more about Sunrun here.