Bringing life-saving power to Puerto Rico

pv magazine: Solar Saves Lives is a big departure from The Solar Foundation’s work to date producing data on the U.S. solar workforce. Can you talk about how this came about, and what inspired you to take this on?

Andrea Luecke: Our mission is very broad by design. Our mission is to accelerate the adoption of solar and solar-compatible technologies. We do that through research, like the job census, and also through education and outreach to help inform decision makers, such as local governments, of the benefits of going solar. In light of the devastating hurricanes that happened in the Caribbean over the last couple of months, we’ve become increasingly focused on the impacts of major natural disasters.

Which as you know, are becoming more frequent, and more damaging, and more expensive.

It’s just very obvious the role that solar and solar-compatible technologies play, both in terms of providing an immediate response, but also in terms of resilience and adaptation in helping communities over the long term. So this is a shift for us. We are definitely getting into resiliency. In addition to the Solar Saves Lives initiative, we are hoping to use our expertise, our network among governments, and also our partnerships to not only continue doing this humanitarian aid and relief, but also produce some hard-hitting research that will help local governments and communities become better prepared.

It is all part of our master plan to move into this area, and take what we have learned from producing the Census, to apply it to research and educational outreach initiatives that can help local governments and state governments become more resilient.

 

pv magazine: Of course you will continue to produce the Solar Census and other data on the solar workforce, right?

Luecke: Oh yes. I think today might be the last day which we are doing data collection for our 8th annual Solar Jobs Census. We are gearing up to release our 8th report in late January/early February like we always do. And then all the statistically significant data down to the state and local level will be available probably in March at SolarStates.org.

It is really a great tool for helping to communicate the benefits of solar technology to stakeholders and decision makers. So yes, we are going to keep doing that, as long as we possibly can. But we need to expand. We see other areas that are not being filled, either through government failure or market failure or just the reports that are out there on resiliency are not accessible enough – maybe they are too dry, maybe too technical.

We see this as a gap that needs to be filled. But Solar Saves Lives is more than just about filling a gap, it is an urgent need to respond to what amounts to millions of Americans without life-saving power.

 

pv magazine: You mention life-saving power. With so many urgent humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico, why is electricity so important to the island’s recovery, and why solar to meet that need?

Luecke: Electricity is not as basic of a need as food, clean water and shelter. But in this day and age, electricity is how economies continue. Without electricity to keep the lights on and to keep business running, everything falls apart.

And of course it also provides basic services like clean water. A lot of the water and sanitation treatment facilities are powered by electricity. Food storage, refrigeration, medical care, medicine refrigeration – all of this requires power.

I don’t know if you remember the article that described how in Florida, over a dozen people died in a nursing home because the power went out, and nobody really learned about it until after the fact. So much of our lives is electrified.

Our objective is to make sure that the electricity that is brought back online is not only reliable, but it is also a safe and clean replacement to diesel generation, which certainly can make the power go back on, but diesel generators are not intended to be used 24/7, and what we have in Puerto Rico now is a long-term problem. And so we have generators failing and other backup power systems failing, and solar plus storage can obviously provide a solution to that.

We are not the only people talking about that. There are lots of groups intending to overhaul the entire power infrastructure. We are not one of those groups.

We are intending to provide relief, and to get equipment and resources to where it needs to go, so that medical clinics and food markets and other places that are essential, that provide essential food and medicine to people – that is where our focus is. It is more on the urgent relief and recovery.

There are a lot of groups out there that are talking about PREPA and what needs to happen in the longer perspective. Unfortunately we’re not in those conversations because we have limited bandwidth, and our focus right now is just on meeting the immediate needs, but I think this is a really important and exciting conversation that is taking place, and I think will serve as a model for island nations and other areas around the globe.

 

pv magazine: This effort to get aid to Puerto Rico involves a partnership with some of the biggest names in philanthropy and aid, including the Clinton Foundation and Operation Blessing. Can you talk about how you were able to put this impressive coalition together, and what the working relationship is like with these organizations?

pv magazine: The genesis of all of this was that David Crane has a special relationship with President Clinton and they did a lot of work in Haiti together. After Maria, everybody was like – whoa, what are we going to do? So David and President Clinton were in a lot of discussions, and President Clinton challenged David to see if he could help galvanize the solar industry.

It appeared that the solar industry was very willing and able to make major contributions to this effort. David reached out to us and to a lot of his colleagues in the states, and we started the early discussions right after the hurricane. We formed this partnership and were able to get Operation Blessing, which as you know is a major organization that is all over the Caribbean, and is doing work on basic needs – food, water, sanitation.

And then notably we were able to bring in Direct Relief, which again is one of the biggest names in aid and relief. They are there providing essential medical services.

Of course they are the ones who clued us in to the needs of the 56 medical facilities scattered across the rural parts of Puerto Rico. And they said – these medical facilities, half of them don’t have power. And of those that do have power, the backup power is starting to fail.

This is a huge issue. These medical facilities are distribution points for other things like water and food. And they are so important to local communities that if there is a priority it has to be on these medical clinics and getting them up and running again.

So we thought that was very compelling and we were very honored to be working with Direct Relief, and with Operation Blessing, as well as JP/HRO in the U.S. Virgin Islands, although we haven’t done as much there yet.

These organizations are important because they have direct access to government, they have great relationships with the folks that are monitoring the imports and the exports at the ports.

For example, Operation Blessing has a great relationship with Mayor Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan. It is because of this that Operation Blessing’s delivery of food, water, blankets, all of that has not gotten hung up in the ports at all, not for one minute. So they have been able to bypass that log jam.

The big stadium in San Juan is being utilized by Direct Relief and Operation Blessing as a staging area. So it was a natural decision for us to work with these kinds of partners, because this is their business. This is what they do day in and day out.

There are other organizations and companies like Tesla, Sunnova and Sunrun that have been on the ground since the weeks after the hurricane, and we are really impressed with their ability to get in and do a lot of great work. But the reason that we wanted to get involved is that we felt there was a need for a more coordinated response that would allow any company, large or small, to contribute by donating products or through monetary contributions.

And we have experienced just that. There has been an overwhelming amount of support from small companies, large companies — companies that have this component, or this system, or this amount of money to contribute. So we are serving as that central coordinating force where anyone can come together and help our fellow Americans in need.

 

pv magazine: What kind of response have you seen from the solar industry to date, in terms of participation?

Luecke: We’ve seen pretty good participation. Every day we are getting five or so emails, phone calls, inquiries from banks, solar companies and other stakeholders who say, “Hey, I am personally interested in helping, what can I do?” or, “My family is from Puerto Rico, we have already been doing this; can we team up and can you help us?” Or, “We’ve experienced difficulty getting our shipment through.”

We are very heartened at the industry’s response so far, which includes five million dollars worth of equipment donations from over 20 companies and organizations. It has been a real equipment challenge, I won’t lie, because a lot of companies have components and un-matched parts, and our job is to make sure that we are not just shipping over a bunch of parts to end up in a landfill somewhere in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

So it is a coordination challenge to make sure that any equipment donations we receive actually mean something and can be integrated into a system. Our objective is to create kits or systems that are clearly marked for one the clinics or food markets or wherever it needs to go, so that installation is not an issue. We don’t want to make it harder than it needs to be, so we are trying to create kits here in the United States.

Yeah, it is a coordination challenge as folks want to give modules, but not racking… or they want to give inverters, but the inverters they want to give don’t match the modules. We are still in the resource-gathering stage, and we have a team that is dedicated to working on this.

 

pv magazine: In terms of contributions from the solar industry and private individuals, what kind of aid are you looking for, and is there anything that you are looking to avoid?

Luecke: We always love cash. Cash is super-flexible. Cash is important because there are hard costs associated with shipping and logistics. Getting the products from the staging area in Florida to one of the islands costs money.

Cash can also be used to pay for any component that can complete a system. Finally, cash is good because we are using local installers and we want to pay them, because we think that is the right thing to do. These people are working in a broken economy right now.

We are working with some really great installers in Puerto Rico right now and they all want to help. But there is going to be a limit to how much they can give pro-bono. At a certain point they really need to be paid. So we are trying to raise money to eventually pay them for all the services that they are providing.

And then finally, the other thing that we are looking for is product donations. But what we really want is things that are quickly and easily set up. So solar flashlights, and anything that is self-contained and mobile, are great. Solar-powered generators, anything that is a complete kit or a system, that’s what we want. To a lesser extent we will accept components, but as I mentioned earlier it has become a bit of a jigsaw puzzle trying to match components, and get the right quantity of components without creating an overstock. So that is last on our wish list. We will accept components but we’d much rather have fully integrated systems.

For companies that don’t have any product to donate or if they have already donated, we encourage them to talk to their employees, talk to their staff about setting up an end-of-year employee giving campaign. Now is the time of year when people are thinking about charity, and they are thinking about the Salvation Army, feeding the homeless, that sort of thing.

It would be wonderful if we could get more and more companies to organize an employee giving campaign within their offices. And host fundraisers. We have Cam Solar hosting a fundraiser for this initiative, they are bringing people together from their community, and they are seeing how much they can raise. So of course we encourage that.

 

pv magazine: Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you think is important for our readers to know?

Luecke: Just to stay tuned. As I mentioned, we are in the resource gathering phase. We do have a really great assembly line mapped out. We don’t have very much on our website yet, but more and more we will start publishing what is actually needed in terms of equipment. So pretty soon we are going to be publishing a wish list for different sites throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands so that people are more clear about what they can contribute and what exactly we are looking for from a product donation standpoint.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that is not going away any time soon. It is still urgent that we move quickly, but we are trying to do this the right way through strong partners that will have the ability to get these systems and these kits and resources to the right places.