In 2019, the Briceburg Fire burned over 5,000 acres in California’s Mariposa County. The fire damaged miles of PG&E’s power distribution lines, disrupting electrical service to the unincorporated community of Briceburg. Rather than rebuild the damaged power lines, PG&E is working with BoxPower to replace them with a solar + battery standalone power system.
The remote grid will support PG&E in its wildfire mitigation and energy resilience efforts in the face of escalating fire risk across the state. Set for completion in April 2021, the integrated solar, battery, and generator system will be the first operational remote grid for California’s largest investor-owned utility.
In addition to reducing wildfire risk, on-site power improves energy resilience. Briceburg’s residents will no longer be vulnerable to Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events. Additionally, the community will benefit from reduced carbon emissions since the solar with propane backup system supplies nearly 90 percent renewable energy.
The Briceburg project is one of the first remote grid installations PG&E is undertaking as part of its 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, which the company submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission in February. The utility has identified the potential for several hundred eventual remote grid installations across the state.
Briceburg is an ideal test case for PG&E to explore renewable standalone power systems: a small community located at the end of a long set of distribution lines that once ran through forested terrain. The on-site power system will eliminate much of the line maintenance and vegetation management costs while also mitigating the risk of electrical-sparked fires.
“It’s exciting to be working in this new area of utility-owned remote power systems, and even more so to be actively striving to protect California from devastating wildfires. We are thrilled to be working on a solution that can lead to a more sustainable, resilient, and safe electric distribution system.”
BoxPower’s home state of California has struggled to address the needs of its unhoused residents in recent decades. With over 150,000 unhoused individuals, the state has the largest homeless population in the United States.
BoxPower is proud to take part in a pilot project in San Jose, where we are providing electricity for an emergency shelter for unhoused families in Santa Clara County, where the homelessness crisis has been particularly acute. The most recent Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey (2019), found 9,706 individuals experiencing homelessness, a 31 percent increase from just two years prior, and the highest number in over a decade.
The project, a 100-bed shelter community called Casitas de Esperanza — Spanish for Tiny Homes of Hope — is located outside the old San Jose City Hall, and will provide temporary shelter for families as a stepping stone to permanent housing. The project is coordinated and funded by Santa Clara County, and managed by Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment.
Powering a Shelter Community for Unhoused Families in San Jose
Over the course of two weeks, Santa Clara County coordinated the installation of 25 Pallet Shelters for unhoused families in San Jose. The community will be powered by two BoxPower solar energy microgrid systems. Building a traditional facility on this site would have taken years.
To build the units, the County contracted Pallet Shelter, a Seattle-based social purpose company on a mission to build equal opportunity access to housing and employment. Pallet Shelter’s easy-to-install homes provide safe and dignified housing communities for people experiencing homelessness, and more broadly allow for scalable, rapidly deployable solutions for counties and cities.
The Casitas de Esperanza community in San Jose, California houses 25 families.
Santa Clara County contracted BoxPower to solve for the lack of reliable utility power available at the site. BoxPower’s solar with propane backup solution fully powers each of the individual shelters, which include heating, air conditioning, charging outlets, and lights. The rapidly deployable microgrid consists of two east-west solar arrays with 22kW PV each, 266kWh LiFePO4 battery storage, and two 35kW propane generators.
BoxPower’s microgrid offers a more cost-effective energy solution than powering the site exclusively with generators, the default approach for similar projects. Traditional generators would have cost the County thousands of dollars each month in fuel and operating expenses.
Crucially, the containerized solar and battery storage systems will also lead to greatly improved air quality conditions for Casitas de Esperanza, where some of the County’s most vulnerable populations might otherwise have to contend with the negative health effects of carbon monoxide from constant generator usage. We anticipate that the community will be fully solar-powered during the summer months, while in the winter months, the propane generator will kick in to support the power load during the shorter days.
Projections of when the generator will run (green) vs solar (orange).
BoxPower provided a rapidly deployable power solution for the community, when electrifying the site by extending the grid would have taken a minimum of six to eight months at great expense to the County. And because of the modular nature of both BoxPower’s and Pallet Shelter’s contributions to the community, when the project reaches the end of its anticipated stay of two to five years at this location, it can be easily packed up and moved to the next location.
As a social enterprise that believes energy is essential, BoxPower is proud to bring clean, affordable energy to traditionally underserved communities around the country.
BoxPower’s recent installation of a solar power and battery storage system for Liberty Utilities puts the company at the forefront of an emergent industry trend: California utilities considering renewable standalone power systems as an alternative to traditional power lines in remote areas.
Rural electrification has been a mainstay of our business from the beginning. Our containerized standalone power systems provide clean, reliable, affordable energy in remote corners of California, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Until recently, we’ve primarily installed non wires alternatives for individuals and small communities, rather than investor-owned utilities — a trend that is true of the microgrid industry at large.
BoxPower’s partnership with Liberty Utilitieson the Sagehen remote grid project is a promising development, and there is good reason to believe that this could be a watershed moment for the way utilities operate.
BoxPower Microgrid Provides Energy Resilience for California Wildfire Season
When Liberty Utilities was researching wildfire mitigation options for one of its remote customers, it selected BoxPower as its solution. BoxPower’s integrated solar, battery, and generator microgrid now provides clean, reliable energy during wildfire season.
Why are California utilities looking to remote grids now? On the one hand, solar power and battery storage systems like BoxPower’s offer immediate cost savings over expensive line upgrades and maintenance when serving small loads.
At the same time, solar standalone power systems offer unique advantages over traditional wires and poles infrastructure in rural areas. Making the switch can help utilities:
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with California SB100’s path to 100% renewable electricity by 2045
Mitigate the risk of transmission-sparked wildfires (at least 17 of the 21 major Northern California wildfires in 2017 were caused by utility equipment, according to Cal Fire)
Increase energy resilience for communities prone to Public Safety Power Shutoffs as part of wildfire mitigation plans
In its 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, PG&E, California’s largest utility, identified “the technology combination of solar photovoltaic generation and battery energy storage with supplemental propane generators as the most cost-effective, reliable, and cleanest solution for initial remote grid sites.”
It is hard to overstate the paradigm shift this innovative approach could represent for investor-owned utilities. Historically, PG&E and other utilities have served all customers in essentially the same way: electricity is generated centrally at a power plant and sent out to homes and businesses through the grid. While this system works well for densely populated urban areas, serving small, remote populations through the grid is relatively costly in comparison.
With worsening wildfires in California and across the West, utility companies can reduce costs, mitigate wildfire risk, and increase energy resilience with the continued adoption of renewable non wires alternatives in rural areas.
Continued successful contracts with utility companies can help BoxPower scale our mission of bringing clean, reliable, and affordable energy to underserved communities.
When a California-based electric utility was researching wildfire mitigation options to harden a transmission line serving one of its customers, it selected Grass Valley, California-based BoxPower and its ground-breaking solar+storage container systems.
Liberty Utilities, a regulated utility with about 50,000 customers on the West side of Lake Tahoe, was investigating making upgrades such as installing covered conductors to its transmission lines that run through a mountainous area to a remote research station operated by University of California, Berkeley. But after running a cost and feasibility analysis, it realized it would be better to de-energize the line during wildfire season and instead utilize a BoxPower containerized solar/storage system.
“We were looking to make certain upgrades to target our transmission lines for wildfire season,” Amanda Chee, Liberty Utilities Program Manager, Capital Administration and Planning, said. “In the process of developing the project for the line, we realized that this could have been a very expensive project.” It would have cost about $3 million to harden the entire 4-mile line, which has 90 poles and serves Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station. BoxPower’s solar/battery system with propane back-up will allow the utility de-energize the lines in summer, according to Chee. This results in over $2 million dollars in lifetime savings for the utility.
BoxPower’s experience in the area and dealing with remote environments helped steer Liberty toward the company, she said, adding that grading and foundation work in the remote area would have been difficult and costly. BoxPower was chosen over “numerous bidders” responding to a Request for Offers it issued earlier this year after identifying the need in early 2020. Ground was broken September 8th on the project, which is due to go operational in October.
“We are trying to go against wildfire season, time is of the essence,” Chee said.
The project required a unique approach due to its location in a remote area of the Sierra Nevada that gets large amounts of snow in winter, according to Michele Nesbit, BoxPower Co-Founder and COO.
“Beyond what we just do normally, there was some design constraints that made this rather unique,” Nesbit said. The 20-kW, 68-KWh system will use propane back-up, but is projected to be 97% renewable. The location has a climate-controlled container design and a load rating of 375 pounds per square foot of snow. BoxPower made small modifications to its standard design increasing tilt to a 60-degree angle so the snow won’t pile up mounted with eight-food clearance from the ground. This is also the first for BoxPower in its home county of Nevada County, “so we’re rather excited about that,” she said. The BoxPower system will prevent the need to inspect the lines during fire season and eventually eliminate the need for them altogether once more generation is put into place, she said.
In partnership with New Sun Road, the system includes real-time monitoring, remote diagnostics, automated alert and reporting. This complete site management tool also enables peak demand reduction, time-of-use optimization, data consolidation and aggregation for resale, as well as virtual power plant (VPP) capabilities.
Lindsay Maruncic, Liberty’s Senior Manager, Renewable Energy, said Berkeley was “100 percent” on-board with the microgrid. “They have been so incredibly cooperative with the project. They have even been involved with the design conversation we had. We really couldn’t ask for a better partner in this project,” she said, adding that the U.S. Forest Service was very accepting and “it’s been a great team.”
An online virtual tour of the site has been posted, which was greatly beneficial during the project development because it avoided the need for on-site visits. That innovative approach is just one more way the Sagehen project developers are using the benefits of technology to substantially reduce costs and complexities, resulting in an ultimately safer and more reliable way to meet the needs of customers.
After two days of hard labor, the BoxPower team and our stalwart volunteers from the community of Mariana enjoyed some well-earned rest under the shade of our newly installed solar microgrid container.
Our first order of business after completing the installation was to wash our filthy work clothes in the newly operational solar-powered-laundromat at the Centro de Imaginacion in Mariana, where residents have been without power for more than 8 months since the hurricane. According to Christine, the executive director of Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo (PAM) Mariana and the driving force between the Centro de Imaginacion, electric laundry machines are one of the most commonly missed aspects of life prior to the hurricane, as residents have been forced to wash their clothes by hand in buckets due to the lack of electricity. Thanks to our solar microgrid container, these washers are now operational!
La Loma Community Meeting
Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo was formed by Luis Ridriguez and Christine Nieves in the wake of Hurricane Mariana, as a necessary response to the life-or-death situation that developed in the weeks following the storm. In hushed tones, Luis described how it took more than three weeks for the first FEMA truck to arrive, which handed out nothing more than a few nutri-grain bars and bottles of water. Meanwhile, elderly residents of Mariana had run out of food, drinking water, and hope.
The first action of PAM Mariana was to establish a community kitchen, where anyone could come to eat free of charge. In the months following the hurricane, Christine and Luis were often feeding upwards of 300 meals per day. They envisioned a sustainable and resilient community center where the residents of Mariana could congregate to build a more resilient and connected community the face of increasingly frequent climate disasters — and immediately got to work materializing it; planting crops to harvest locally and organizing emergency brigades to clear the roads of downed power lines and debris.
Now, 8 months after the hurricane, Mariana is still without power, the lack of which has only solidified the critical role of PAM Mariana as a beacon of resiliency, independence, and sustainability. It is no longer just about recovering from the hurricane, it is about creating a future in which a tragedy of this magnitude can never happen again.
La Loma Farmers Market
Thats where we came in.
Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo
Our first BoxPower system arrived in Mariana late tuesday afternoon, May 22nd, riding atop a commercial freight truck, the likes of which the small windy mountain roads of Mariana had likely never seen before. Despite clearing Hacienda (port customs) in record time, our deployment plan encountered a major set back when the organization that had pledged to provide a tractor and crane to facilitate the final placement of the box, backed out with less than 12 hours notice leaving us high and dry.
It was at this moment that I witnessed for the first time (but certainly not the last), the magical power of Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo and their dedicated community support network. All of my commercial and non-profit contacts were not able to step in and provide the necessary equipment on such short notice, but somehow Christine and Luis were able to find volunteers with the necessary equipment in a matter of hours.
From Abandoned School to Community Center
The allocated space for the installation of BoxPower in the community of Mariana. This abandoned school has been transformed into a community center by the team at Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo. The building, in conjunction with BoxPower, will provide a place for community members to do laundry, rooms for community meetings or workshops, offices for student workers, a library, a tool library, and living quarters for volunteers. Plans for the building include the development of a hostel and small business incubation, such as a community run coffee shop.
It is becoming more and more evident that grid tied energy is extremely vulnerable: one snapped power line can imply days without power. During a storm, natural gas lines can break, diesel generators can run out of fuel, and localized outages can extend for miles. After Hurricane Maria, doctors were performing surgeries in hospitals by headlight and countless medications went to waste due to a lack of refrigeration. Life support became even more difficult to administer with expensive electric bills from often unreliable or spotty generator power. The official death toll of Hurricane Maria is suggested to be approximately 4,600, given the indirect repercussion from long-term periods of power loss. With these thoughts in mind, our team of empowered workers set out to set up the solar array.
Step #1: Elephant Grass
Step 1: Clear a road through six-foot-tall elephant grass.
Step #2: Flag Down a Tractor Driver
Step 2: Flag down a passing tractor driver on the road, and convince him to build us a new road.
He was an artist with his machine, wasting no time and no soil. Every move was as precise and as graceful as a dancer. When he finished, we asked him what we owed him, and he asked for $60. Don’t worry, we paid him much more.
Step #3: Recruit Bomberos
Step 3: Recruit the local bomberos (fire department) who volunteered their time, equipment, and incredible skill to navigate the box down a very slippery dirt road, and around an impossibly tight corner. We might have gotten the truck stuck a few times, but it all worked out in the end!
With help from the dedicated bomberos, we unloaded the container and positioned it in the lot outside of the school. Barrio Mariana has been rebuilding since October 2017, when long-term volunteers and residents begun to clear debris, plant seeds, rebuild homes, and help with kitchen duties. Kindred volunteers and community members have been working courageously to regain optimal functioning and livelihood and to ensure that Mariana can withstand any future storm or major grid-tied outage.
Signatures from the incredible team of bomberos (firefighters) who helped get the box up and running – providing the community of Mariana with a self-sustaining modular microgrid. #BomberosdePuertoRicoSolidaridad
Celebrating a days work! After this photo was taken, we retired for the evening to celebrate the successful placement and to honor feelings of achievement with local food and drinks.
Step #4: The Solar Array
Step 4: Installing the solar array. With just our hands and some basic equipment, we installed the solar array in a mere five hours. BoxPower’s design allows for dismantling: the solar array can be packed back into the shipping container to protect the photovoltaic panels in case of a storm. This durability strategy ensures that energy can be generated as soon as the storm ends. Additional reliability comes from the system’s generator, intended to act as backup energy insurance. The use of battery storage allows the system to generate electricity for 72 hours if the sun is not shining.
A collaborative endeavor went into the installation of BoxPower’s solar container. The members of the community who played a pivotal role in the installation of the system were fully trained on how to dismantle the box to prevent damage during extreme weather circumstances. The installation of the box only takes up to five hours – but we spent two days educating and training community members.
As quickly as the clouds passed overhead, our team of excited volunteers and community members set up the solar array (with no heavy machinery or technical equipment). “Our system is standardized, all the electrical work is done, there’s no need for an electrician. It’s sort of like an IKEA set,” Angelo Campus, CEO of BoxPower.
The Benefits of a Microgrid
The installation of a microgrid, with on or off-grid capabilities, provides a deeper layer of benefits beyond simply possessing reliable and durable energy: the protection and fulfillment of human life. The clean solar energy prevents damages to the eyes and respiratory system from using kerosene or coal, reducing burns and the inhalation of chemicals and fumes. Having access to clean energy brings time back into people’s’ lives: time spent gathering firewood or building a fire can be spent studying or completing productive work.
Durable, Reliable, Transparent Energy
The Mariana community via Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo seeks to empower other communities to become sustainable and self sufficient. The installation of solar microgrids provides durable, reliable, transparent energy to power kitchens, refrigerators, doctors offices, laundromats, schools, and homes. Renewable microgrids provide a compelling illustration for overcoming the vulnerability of grid-tied electricity. We believe that this is just the beginning – one domino in a large-scale movement towards independence and sustainability. No matter where you are in the world, everyone deserves clean and reliable energy.
It was with great anticipation that I set out for Puerto Rico to attend the PR-GRID conference, an energy-industry conference attended by both the public and private sector players in Puerto Rico’s energy industry. Notable attendees included the ex-CEO of PREPA (the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority), representatives from FEMA, the Department of Energy, and numerous commercial vendors ranging from solar companies to wire manufacturers. The purpose of the event, which was hosted at the InterContinental Hotel in the wealthy Isla Verde district of San Juan, was to discuss the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria (which resulted in 4-6 months of outages for most Puerto Rican residents) and to discuss pathways forward for a still-badly-damaged and bankrupt public energy sector. While most of the presenters agreed that the Puerto Rican energy industry is badly in-need of a thorough overhaul and restructuring, the strategies for how to rebuild it could be broadly divided into two groups: those who believe that energy generation should remain centralized, concentrated, and based primarily on fossil fuels; and those who believe in a decentralized structure consisting of renewable resources, battery storage, and microgrids.
A Resilient, Reliable Grid
Around 9:00 pm, I found myself mingling with members of FEMA, the Department of Energy, and the Rocky Mountain Institute at a boardwalk mixer sponsored by the Smart Energy Power Association (SEPA). While casually chatting with my new friends about their various experiences on the island, many of whom had been stationed here upwards of 6-months, we were presented with a stark reminder of the fragility of the Puerto Rican electrical grid. In the blink of an eye, the boardwalk went dark. My first reaction was to assume that a breaker had been tripped or a transformer blown–but a quick scan of the surrounding hotel resorts revealed that this outage was a small corner of a much larger portrait of darkness. While I could see distant lights inland, it was clear that the entire beach strip had lost power, the only visible light coming from green exit signs. Within 15 seconds we heard the roar of a generator, and power hesitantly flickered back into the lights of our hotel. Meanwhile, the less fortunate neighboring buildings remained dark, and the shifting beams from dozens of flashlights shining inside hotel rooms revealed that hotel staff are both prepared for and accustomed to outages.
The New Normal
After the networking session, I decided to take a walk down the still-dark beach of Isla Verde, enjoying the sights and sounds, in search of something more substantial to eat than the deep-fried cheese and empanadas provided at the conference. I was expecting most places to be closed due to the outage, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across a bustling beach-side cantina illuminated by battery powered LED lanterns. I asked my waiter if this was a common occurrence here in the heart of San Juan’s resort district. He just laughed and said, “this is normal now.”
One controversial topic that was brought up repeatedly at the GRID conference, and again in my travels around the island, was the phenomena of people choosing to stay off-grid, even after centralized grid power was returned (tenuously) to their neighborhoods. Although much more common in rural southern areas like Humacao, where most people experienced outages of five months or longer (and as many as 80,000 people are still in the dark), some residents of the San Juan metropolitan region have chosen to remain disconnected, instead utilizing and expanding the solar and battery backup systems that they cobbled together in the wake of Hurricane Maria. What I found to be the most extraordinary was the level of expertise that the average Puerto Rican had developed regarding solar and battery technology. While hitching a ride to the southeastern region of Humacao with Karen, a 20-something year old Puerto Rican native, she told me in great detail about the new 4kw solar array which she had designed using YouTube videos, and was building to replace the 2 cheap panels she had purchased immediately after the hurricane. Why? Because she wanted to be able to use her hair-dryer again.
Driven by the highest energy costs in the nation ($0.22/kwH, compared to a national average of $0.12) and a deep distrust for PREPA created by their delayed response time, these newfound solar entrepreneurs have taken it upon themselves to move the needle on solar energy in Puerto Rico, and they aren’t waiting for anyone else to do it for them.
Unfortunately, PREPA and the rest of the traditional energy providers on the island have a less flattering term for these innovators. “Grid Defectors.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this term used by members of PREPA, power plant operators, or regulators, I would have more money than the entire Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (hint: they were billions of dollars in debt BEFORE Maria, due to poor economic planning and failed investments). One of the more concerning proposals that I heard was that they plan to deter people from going off-grid by creating a tax or fine for those who choose not to source their power from PREPA. This was justified by the reasoning that ‘grid defectors’ (who are most often among the wealthier citizens of Puerto Rico, and can afford the minimum $8,000-$10,000 necessary for a minimal off-grid system), will cause electricity rates to increase for lower-income Puerto Ricans who will be forced to bear the fixed-costs of grid maintenance and capital improvements. While this reasoning is valid, (SEE: Utility Death Spiral), states like California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey have shown that if properly managed (and incentivized both financially and with regulations), solar and battery systems can help to create a resilient, affordable electricity grid for everyone.
John Berger, CEO of Sunnova (A Texas based solar installer with a large presence in Puerto Rico) said it best. “You can’t stop solar. We aren’t going anywhere!”
Whispers of Storms to Come
The elephant in the room throughout both the conference and my subsequent trip to the remote southeastern region of Humacao, was the government-mandated privatization of PREPA, and the details of what this privatization would mean for rural residents, renewable energy companies, and the island as a whole. Although no official statement has been released confirming or denying plans to privatize PREPA, it is widely accepted as a high-likelihood solution for PREPA’s looming debt and history of financial mismanagement. For both the solar and fossil-fuel generation industries, this possibility creates a daunting level of uncertainty with regards to how Power Purchase Agreements, Independent Power Producers, and Net Metering regulations will change in the coming year. For rural residents like Lois and Katherine, residents of Mariana who have been without power for 8-months now, they believe that privatization could result in the indefinite absence of grid electricity in low-income rural regions like theirs, due to the high cost of rural infrastructure and the low inventive of returns for a private utility company.
Even if grid electricity returns, resident faith in centralized generation has been badly shaken. Although hesitant to speak about it openly, as though giving voice to their fears could make them more likely to happen, the threat of the approaching summer-hurricane season was never far from the thoughts of all Puerto Ricans. “We have been through so much, it can’t happen again, it just can’t,” said Alejandro, “but if it does, this time we will be ready.”
Last Friday, we performed our first installation on the tribal land of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation in Mahwah, NJ. BoxOne (as we’ve been calling it) will sustainably power certain key activities of the tribe’s Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp, which was opened last October to educate the public about the environmental risks of continued fossil fuel consumption and raise awareness about the Pilgrim Pipeline — a proposal that, if completed, would carry crude and refined oil within a half-mile of the Ramapough Nation’s land, posing a threat to the tribe’s main source of water. BoxPower is proud to play a small part in a noble effort to protect the land and water of Lenapehoking—the land of the Lunaape people — and beyond. The installation attracted some media attention, so here’s a round-up of the press coverage it got:
The Record (NorthJersey.com) did a write-up, which includes a great short video of the deployment process. One slightly technical note: despite what the headline says, the Ramapough are not now “on the grid,” but they will have a greatly increased and more stable supply of electricity because of the unit we installed there.
The Star-Ledger (NJ.com) wrote an article highlighting the tensions between the Ramapough and the town of Mahwah.
The Mahwah Patch ran a short piece that gives some good background on both BoxPower and the Ramapough tribe.