ASU solar project in Puerto Rico promotes energy independence

People working on Soalr panel installation in Puerto Rico

Arizona State University's first solar project in Puerto Rico promotes energy independence for the community of Barrio La Salud. Using flexible solar panels, a novel racking design and battery backup, community leaders can safely remove and replace panels before and after a major storm or hurricane. Doctoral students Jessica Otten and Tara Neitzold are part of a team of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) students who worked with community leaders to design the system.

After a week on-site in Mayaguez conducting background research, field observation and stakeholder interviews, the team developed a keen understanding of the community’s needs concerning energy use after a disaster. In particular, this was very useful in the initial stage when the team worked to develop and iterate a few prototype models for the panel racking. These models became useful later for the community as they worked to design a system that worked best for them.

One innovative design was flexible solar cells that can be rolled up easily by one or two people on the roof and then carried down and stored. A patent application has been filed for the roll-up design through ASU and Arizona Technology Enterprises at SkySong Innovations. A grant provided by ASU LightWorks to refine the system design and work with a solar company to install a system that would meet the community center’s energy demands.

During the visit in May, the team conducted an education and outreach activity, which involved showing community members how to use a voltage meter to conduct their own energy audits. “Through this experience, we have learned the difference between design and application can be considerable," said Jessica Otten. "We learned that community leaders were the first to respond and rebuild after Hurricane Maria. For this reason, they are well-positioned to be the people most in-charge of the system and also have the best understanding of what exactly their community needs."

Otten continued: “After learning about the skills and self-determination of the community leaders, we asked if they would take our proposed design concepts and make them better. They were excited about the opportunity to participate as equal partners in this project. They valued the use of flexible modules because they are lightweight, easy to carry and handle, can withstand the impact of flying debris, and they have similar energy output compared to rigid panels. While the cost is slightly higher than the rigid panels, the previously mentioned benefits justify the cost. The community leaders took our roll-up design concept and suggested that we use a modified racking system that would enable the panels to slide in and out of an aluminum frame without the roll-up device.”