Blog Post

The Puerto Rico/SimpliPhi Power Nexus: Questions for Catherine Von Burg

Shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated the island Puerto Rico, SimpliPhi CEO Catherine Von Burg, working late in the office, took a call from Maritza Arroyo, a resident who was seeking help. She and her house, though damaged, had made it through the hurricane, and she was one of the few in her neighborhood who still had power–supplied by her solar array connected to SimpliPhi batteries. Looking ahead to the potential for future hurricanes and prolonged outages, Maritza, an early customer, wanted more batteries. Since then,  demand for SimpliPhi Power storage solutions  has only grown, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

This week, Catherine is in Puerto Rico for the Clinton Global Initiative’s conference on disaster recovery with SimpliPhi’s training engineer, Troy Daniels, who is training installers on the merits of building resilience with PHI batteries. We caught up with Catherine before her trip.

Puerto Rico is having “a moment,” at least if you look at the US popular press. What do you make of this?

It’s encouraging  to see any and all attention on the island, because residents are still rebuilding their lives. The New York Times anointed it as the number one travel destination for 2019, Lin Manuel Miranda is giving residents the opportunity to see his hit show Hamilton with the proceeds donated to arts organizations hard hit by the hurricane, and Congressional leadership swooped in recently for a visit. So yes, I love seeing any type of attention being lavished on the island, because it raises awareness that residents are far from being done in rebuilding their lives, homes and communities – and it feels hopeful. What matters most to me is whether people are truly recovering, rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Maria, and of course most importantly to me, that the island is creating true energy resiliency going forward.

Ruth, an 83-year old retired schoolteacher in Juncos, now has safe, reliable access to electricity after living 5 months without power post-Hurricane Maria.

SimpliPhi batteries have found a natural home in Puerto Rico. Can you explain why you think they’re especially effective in this arena?

We’ve definitely found a strong use-case in Puerto Rico. From individual homeowners, to hospitals, hotels and community centers — Puerto Ricans suffered a harsh reality  during and after Hurricane Maria, and they’re now being proactive. The island’s power grid is aging and overtaxed, and it failed mightily during the disaster. We’ve seen real determination on many fronts that this simply should not happen again with the same catastrophic impact, and that there are solutions to build distributed energy reserves throughout the island that create preparedness and security at the local level, before the next hurricane possibly hits the island.

Puerto Rico’s hot climate is not an issue for our batteries, which can withstand extreme heat and perform well. They do not contain cobalt, the cause behind the fires and thermal runaway typically associated with lithium ion batteries, so they’re safe  even inside small living structures without the risk of fire, and without the need for ventilation or cooling. This week our technical trainer, Troy Daniels, is offering hands on and practical training to demonstrate to solar installers on the island how using our batteries can create critical back-up power reserves, harness the power of the sun for on & off grid applications, optimize diesel generators and curtail the use of precious fuel and strengthen the overall grid infrastructure. . These trainings have been well attended in the past and we anticipate even more attendees this time around. Troy is an effective technical communicator, so anyone who attends is guaranteed to come away with a better understanding of the benefits of energy storage in general and the PHI  batteries in particular.

The Del Valle family in Cidra no longer has to go for months without electricity the next time a hurricane strikes, while benefiting year-round from a reduced electric bill.

Some truly effective partnerships seem to have come out of the disaster. Can you comment on their importance?

Absolutely. We have joined hands with some tremendous partners in Puerto Rico, who share our vision for energy resiliency in Puerto Rico. The Clinton Global Initiative is leading the charge, and is convening a conference this week in San Juan dedicated to post-disaster recovery.  The Solar Foundation and Direct Relief are doing great work and the Footprint Project, a small but mighty non-profit has  ambitious plans for a microgrid in Vieques, relying on the SimpliPhi  batteries. We’ve recently formed a partnership with Hive Cube, which makes containerized houses that are attractive,  affordable and functional, especially since they can withstand high-winds and torrential rain typical of hurricanes.  The PHI batteries are a perfect fit because of their small, modular size, scalability and perhaps most importantly, their lack of toxicity – no cobalt – which is critical to energy security. And the solar installers have been tremendous partners, eager to learn about energy storage and spread it far and wide on the island. Here’s one example of a successful partnership: The village of San Salvador, in Caguas, suffered for seven months without power after Hurricane Maria struck. They now have a resilient solar + storage-powered community center to rely upon thanks to a combined effort of AltE Store, Energy Solutions Puerto Rico and Grassroots Solar, Inc., who recently commissioned a reliable, long-lasting SimpliPhi + OutBack Power microgrid. And one nice detail — this all came together in December so they’d have power for the holidays.

The COSSMA medical clinic in Cidra, one of eight+ SimpliPhi-powered medical clinics in Puerto Rico, now has critical back up power to refrigerate medicine.

What worries you most?

My biggest concern is that decision-makers rely on the old model of cleaning up after a disaster, effectively  repairing an outdated system desperately in need of innovations that are available today that build capacity and resiliency before the next event. The Stafford Act is a case in point when it comes to decisions concerning Federal dollars and how they can be spent.  Puerto Rico can be a model for realizing the cost effectiveness of disaster preparedness going forward. That’s the story we need to be talking about and implementing, from the ground up. Anything we and our partners can do to advance this idea is a tremendous investment in today, and our future as a country and as a planet.