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Alternative Technologies Come Through in a Crisis

Randy Sukow Oct 10, 2017

NRTC as a matter of routine reviews many technologies and assesses them as potential solutions for our rural members. During this year’s much harsher-than-usual hurricane season, some of these technologies are getting a closer look, pressed into service for storm recovery projects.

We at NRTC were happy to have had a direct part in the blending of AMI, wireless, GSI and mobile workforce management technologies for two Georgia cooperatives’ recovery efforts following Hurricane Irma. The success of those efforts has led organizers of the NRECA TechAdvantage 2018 to begin planning a panel discussion reviewing Georgia storm recovery at the event next February in Nashville, TN.

Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico has led others to implement other untested technology approaches. Over the years, developers have proposed using lighter-than-air ships, airplanes and drones to carry cellular devices to fill in wireless coverage in rural areas. They also have theorized on the usefulness of such technologies on a temporary basis when a natural disaster wipes out wireless infrastructure.

Over the weekend, the FCC granted an experimental license to Alphabet, the parent company of Google Inc., to deploy a cellular system based on its balloon-based Project Loon (pictured). “We need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on [Puerto Rico],” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “Project Loon is one such approach. It could help provide the people of Puerto Rico with access to cellular service to connect with loved ones and access life-saving information.”

It has been more than two weeks since Hurricane Maria took down power and cellular communications in Puerto Rico and it could be longer still before Project Loon provides relief. The experimental license provides authorization to operate on 900 MHz land mobile radio spectrum. “To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t do it alone,” said Libby Leahy, a Google spokeswoman in a USA Today article. However, she said that Google is making progress toward some form of interface with local carriers.

Energy storage is another important breakthrough for the rural cooperative community. NRTC is working with SoCore to develop storage solutions and expects to make significant announcements soon.

In Puerto Rico, entrepreneur Elon Musk is working with the island’s government to deploy Tesla batteries to restore some residents’ power. According to a Business Insider report, the plan is to build a battery-only microgrid independent of any other power source. Solar panels will then power the batteries.

“Musk and [Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo] Rossello are still hammering out the details for a Puerto Rico microgrid, but we should expect to hear more soon. Tesla is ramping up battery production for the project and is continuing to send smaller, residential batteries, called the Powerwall, to the island,” according to the article.

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