Lights Out in Les Anglais?

Adam looked at the dark clouds over the mountains north of Les Anglais, Haiti, “It won’t rain here. Those storms tend to just go east to west across the mountains.”

For most of the day he was right.

Doug at Les Anglais microgrid

I was visiting Les Anglais in early August as part of a joint project to evaluate electric cooking on the EarthSpark International microgrid and at nearby off-grid households. EarthSpark has operated a solar-powered electric grid in this small town on the southern shore of Haiti’s Tiburon peninsula for the past four years. In October 2016, just one year after commissioning, Les Anglais suffered a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane (Matthew) The eye passed directly over the town, causing major damage to the distribution grid, but only minimal damage to the generation system. Many of the homes in the town were severely damaged or destroyed by the storm and evidence of the rebuilding process is still apparent.

Since Matthew, EarthSpark has made significant progress with the system. They rapidly repaired the generation and distribution systems and recently upgraded the generation system to a more modern configuration centered around a 100 kW PV array, lithium-ion battery and advanced microgrid controller. Things are going well. Hundreds of customers have signed up to raise their service levels to higher tiers (current tiers are Light, TV, Freezer, Gwo Bagay and Anchor), and the team is busy planning for the startup of the newly installed grid in a second town and for twenty-two more solar-powered microgrids around the region.

Adam, Madie, Andy and I were sitting around the table in EarthSpark’s staff house in late afternoon, each involved in work on our laptops. The house’s common room looked out over one of the small streets near the town center. The room was open to the outside – there were no windows — but Adam explained that the rain rarely got into the room and if the wind switched, they just moved the couches away from the opening and mopped up later.

I happened to be looking up from my screen when a bright flash lit the sky, followed shortly by a massive roar of thunder. The others saw the flash reflected off the walls.

The first comment was, “That was a big one.”

The second comment was, “Power’s out.” The fans had stopped so the room was suddenly muggier than before.

“Did the surge blow a breaker or is the system down?”

“Not sure. I just hope it didn’t hit a transformer.” It was still light outside, so it was hard to tell whether the rest of the community had power.

Adam’s phone buzzed. “Generation’s down.” He had gotten a message from the battery/inverter system, relayed via the cloud-based monitoring system. He immediately started packing up his backpack to walk over to the generation station.

“Power’s back on.” The fan had started up again.

Adam’s phone buzzed again. “We’re running on generator.”

I asked, “how do you know?”

“Wendy just sent me an email. She must be online.”

Wendy is the other senior EarthSpark engineer, but she was currently in Colombia for a microgrid conference.

Madie, Andy and I all continued stuffing computers and power cords into our respective backpacks so we could accompany Adam over to check out the generating station.

Adam called Jude, one of the EarthSpark technicians, who confirmed that he was near the generation system and would head over there to check it out. He was joined shortly by Jean, a Rutgers-educated Haitian engineer acting as the “microgrids operations assistant” for EarthSpark in Les Anglais.

Just as we were all about to head out the door, a light rain began, accompanied by more flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. We debated about whether to head over anyway, but the light rain turned into a downpour and the lightning was getting more frequent, so the general opinion was to wait.

Adam checked his phone again and there was a WhatsApp message from Jean with a photo of the main screen showing that the system was now operating normally, and the generator had shut down.

The downpour had turned into a deluge, so our visit to the system was definitely postponed, but the pressure to get over to the system had been dramatically reduced since it was operating normally and powering the community.

“I wonder how many meters we lost.” Household power consumption was measured using about 450 pole-mounted smart meters from SparkMeter, a technology company which had spun out of EarthSpark a few years before.

Distribution pole showing SparkMeters and customer connections.

“We’ll know if meters were damaged once they have had a chance to report in a couple of times. If they start missing heartbeats, then we’ll know which meters were damaged by the surge.”

As it turned out, only two meters had been damaged, and these were older models made before SparkMeter had upgraded the surge protection. Three more meters went down as the storm intensified and there was an even closer lightning strike (flash, whomp, “I saw sparks from that one…”), but all of the meters were replaced by the next day and the system was back to operating normally.

So the lights did go out in Les Anglais because of a lightning strike, but the system protected itself and power was back on within a couple of minutes with no intervention from the EarthSpark staff. The team was kept informed through the whole process, even as far away as Columbia and EarthSpark’s headquarters in Washington, DC. When the meter damage eventually became apparent after an hour or so, the report was detailed enough to allow a crew to locate the affected meters and make the repairs by the next day. I have to admit that I was impressed. With robust technology and a lot of good, hard work, EarthSpark is “de-risking by doing,” proving that solar powered microgrids can supply reliable power in rural Haiti.

Weekly market at Les Anglais