The story of Dolf Ivener's journey from Iowa hog confinements to Puerto Rico
Dolf Yeah, we’re in the lee of the solar panels.
Mark This is Dolf Ivener, owner of SunCrate Energy .
Dolf Birds love solar panel racks for nests.
Mark We are in a small solar panel infrastructure behind an apartment complex near where Sioux City begins to blur into rural living. As well as owning SunCrate Energy, and HogPower Energy, Dolf farms and runs a construction company. He identifies as a hog farmer.
Dolf I find solar panels and corn planters, they each have a special place. Birds love them.
Mark This is Melody.
Melody My name is Melody Jean Walbricht.
Mark Melody lives about 2500 miles from the shade of the solar panels Dolf and I stood in.
Melody Oh, you’re in Iowa. Oh, well, I was born in Iowa, also.
Mark Our both being Iowans was pure coincidence. Originally from Osage, Melody moved to Puerto Rico with her husband 40 years ago. I was on one side of a phone call to the SU Manuel Ortiz school in Yabacoa, Puerto Rico, and somebody handed her the other side. Her granddaughter is a student at the school. My interest in the school goes back to Dolf, and his interest goes back to Hurricane Maria, an Atlantic hurricane whose winds reached 175 mph and caused the deaths of over 3000 people in Puerto Rico. For the survivors, it’s been a difficult recovery.
Melody Oh, trees everywhere. Trees, power lines, poles… it was really a mess, and thanks to the teachers and some of the parents, well, every day they would come and pick up and try to get things back in order so that school could go ahead and be open again as soon as possible.
Mark But then a road to the school collapsed, preventing the school’s re-opening and, as it turns out, threatening a permanent closure.
Dolf When we chose that school, that school was on the chopping block for consolidation, and when we said, “hey, we want to do this school,” they said, “all right, that school can stay.”
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Mark The public-school system in Puerto Rico was under stress before Hurricane Maria struck in 2017. The New York Times reported that in 2016, 167 schools had been shuttered. Following the hurricane, 265 more were closed. Lack of funding and emigration from the island have put pressure on the system, as have political pushes for privatization and wavers, forcing consolidation. Though rural towns in Iowa and beyond haven’t all together suffered a natural disaster as has Puerto Rico, waning populations and funding challenges have forced consolidation in the countryside. For Dolf, who intentionally works with solar power to provide a degree of independence to folks in rural parts or the world, school consolidation represents a loss of an ideal.
Dolf you know, when you drive through every small town in Iowa, you look at the school and it’s the Shleghorn… you know, go down the list of five towns in one, and the town that didn’t get the school, kinda just, you know, kinda just drying up.
Mark Behind the saving of the school, is another story.
Dolf Because I’m a hog farmer from Iowa, right? Hog farmer from Iowa calls up and says, “hey, I want to do this,” right?
Mark Before there was SunCrate Energy, there was Hog Power Energy.
Dolf I came up with this idea for hog confinements.
Mark A self-contained solar system. Panels, battery, and all the parts needed in a shipping container. In addition to the parts, the box contains an idea – that micro-grids, grids made up of smaller, smart sources of electricity that can connect to the larger, traditional grids, can reshape rural life. As Dolf argues, if you can suddenly cut your energy costs, whether those costs that you find on your utility bill or those costs of transportation once you implement electric vehicles, then
Dolf all of the sudden, the pull to move to town, became less of a pull.
Mark When Hurricane Maria struck, the vision of solar systems packaged in shipping containers suddenly had could be seen in a new context – not just near hog confinements in Iowa, but near schools in Puerto Rico. But how does a
Dolf hog farmer from Iowa
Mark get in touch with the secretary of education in Puerto Rico?
Dolf Everything is created through personal relationships. I made a personal relationship with a man at Black and Veatch in Kansas City. I accomplished all kinds of tasks for them to prove I was competent. And then they opened their rolodex of numbers. And one of their… they are the engineering company of choice for Tesla for installing all of the supercharging stations around the United States.
Dolf Black and Veatch called.
Mark Called the Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico. And with their name and reputation, in addition to Tesla’s and to Canadian Solar’s, both of whom also partnered with Dolf for this project.
Dolf So that then perks up the Secretary of Education, and she’s like. “Yeah, we’ve got the biggest players in the world coming to help our little school in, ya know, in Yabacoa, Puerto Rico.
Mark What made Yabacoa, Puerto Rico, a good candidate for this micro grid technology, making major companies like Black and Veatch and Tesla interested Dolf’s idea, was, in part, the insolvency of Puerto Rico’s utility. Most utilities faced with disaster in the United States can rely on the mutual assistance program, a voluntary agreement amongst utilities that those not affected by a disaster will bring equipment and workers to the impacted area to quickly rebuild the damaged grid and restore power – work for which the rebuilt utility and its rate payers will pay for in time. Puerto Rico didn’t appear to have the resources to pay the utilities who helped, which has led to a series of government contracts which have raised concerns of nepotism and unfair dealings. That and,
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Dolf these larger engineering companies, um, their bread and butter has been huge massive projects, like a coal-fired plant that is a billion dollars, takes 4 years to build it, right? I mean those are awesome projects, and those projects are starting to go away.
Mark The United States Energy Information Administration estimates that to build a 650 megawatt coal-fired power plant with 30% carbon sequestration that will go online in 2021, the cost would be 3.3 billion dollars. To build enough solar plants with fixed panels to create the same amount of power, it would be $1.2 billion, and it would go online in 2019. Giving solar an advantage. And with Tesla and companies like Tesla ramping up production of batteries, batteries that can communicate when networked, the ability to create and store power then use it when needed is here. Dolf’s SunCrate, or Hog Power box, proves that smart microgrids can supplement major grids. The proof is being shown every day at a small school in Yabacoa Puerto Rico.
But before that box began proving the idea, it had to be set up. After months of development and building, trial and error, finally having the crate ready to go, Dolf ran into difficulties shipping it to Puerto Rico,
Dolf That took me six week. Six weeks of my life!
Mark Calling one company and explaining you want to ship a container you own.
Dolf And they’d be like, yeah, no problem
Mark And then, they’d say wait a second,
Dolf What do you mean your shipping container?
Mark We use our shipping containers.
Dolf I thought we had this conversation.
Mark But finally Dolf found,
Dolf Juan Carlos.
Mark And within 24 hours his crate was on its way to Puerto Rico.
Once there, nothing went smoothly, but Dolf and his team persisted, setting up the equipment, training teachers and administrators on how to use it, racing against the clock as the Secrectary of Education as well as folks from Tesla and the other companies were coming down to see this battery go online, giving life back to a school that had been closed for a traumatic year.
Dolf This task had to be completed when that limo, that black Suburban rolled in.
Mark But the work was bringing them right up to the that time. And then, once done, the battery had to charge. For the system to be fully utilized, the battery must be fully charged. But the Suburban has arrived. Speeches are being given.
And, if you’re a parent or teacher, see below for book recommendations for kids.Solar-powered schools and electric busesPhoto Illustration by The New York TimesSchools around the country are taking an interest in clean energy, putting solar panels on roofs and swapping diesel school buses for electric versions.But it’s not always easy for a school to go green.
Dolf And, literally, as the Secretary of Education calls my name, “Dolf, come up and tell us about it,” the screen blinked. And, right, I have this big flat screen TV that shows the schematic on the battery charge and it just flashes 100%, and it was just like “Boom!” Oh! Don’t stand next to me because lightning could strike me, cause, man, I got the hot hand. So, I just walked up there and, we, “OK turn it off,” and you kill it, and none of the lights go down and the school is still running, and the air conditioners are humming, and it’s like “Yep. Yeah, we totally knew this would happen all the time. We had it all. This is great. And these microgrids, you know?” It’s just, you know, we got really lucky.
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Mark Dolf has stayed in touch with the folks at the school and can view the workings of the crate on his phone. The kids haven’t had to be sent home for loss of power even as Puerto Rico continues to struggle with its macro grid. And folks lie Melody, who see this technology at work every day, are now thinking anew.
Melody I’m looking forward to doing the same thing with my home. I’m all for clean energy.