Power to the people

Brattleboro solar entrepreneur organizes a crowdfunding effort to bring emergency solar power to Puerto Rico as it struggles to rebuild

BRATTLEBORO — Many people in southeastern Vermont have been aware of the GoFundMe campaign that was set up by Joseph Mangum, of Sunnyside Solar in West Brattleboro. It is collecting donations to provide solar systems for people in need in Puerto Rico.

Sunnyside Solar has a long history. It was founded by Richard Gottlieb and Carol Levin, selling its first photovoltaic (PV) panel in 1983. At that time, many people did not even know solar panels were available, but Gottlieb was already an old hand. He had started with PVs by installing solar cells on the satellites in the Vanguard program, which ran from 1957 to 1959. He was undeniably a solar pioneer.

When Gottlieb died, in 2012, Levin briefly suspended business operations and then reopened in West Brattleboro, next to the Chelsea Royal Diner. As time passed, she brought in Joseph Mangum, eventually passing the business to him.

Now Mangum is writing a new and very interesting chapter in the business's long history. He is putting solar systems together and taking them, along with other important materials, down to Puerto Rico, to help people whose lives have been disrupted by hurricanes Irma and Maria. He will spend three weeks working there.

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Joseph Mangum set up his GoFundMe campaign in early October. The goal of the campaign is to raise $20,000 to send solar systems to Puerto Rico. In its first few weeks, the campaign raised more than $9,500.

But people in Puerto Rico are in need now, not at some hypothetical date when $20,000 is fully available. So Mangum used what he had available to start with the first five PV systems.

I got an email from him on Oct. 26, in which he wrote:

“I leave for Boston tomorrow, Friday [Oct. 27] and for San Juan bright and early Saturday morning [Oct. 28]. We are bringing 5 solar generators with us, but also other things:

“2 high volume water purifier pumps

“150 life straws

“20,000 seeds to replant agriculture

“20 individual food bags that consist of 5 lbs of rice, 1 lb of dried beans, 1 lb of dried lentils, 4 packages of instant mashed potatoes, 2 cans of tuna, and a small bag of dried fruit.

“I wish we could bring down so much more on this plane ride down.

“The current itinerary is to get the generators delivered during the week. We are going into the mountains in the center of the island and the going will be tough. So we are quite prepared for on-the-fly decision making. Absence of communication outside of San Juan also makes everything more complicated as well.

“We are supposed to be meeting with both the mayors of Comerio and Jayuya, but we'll see. With communications down and no set date for our arrival in either town.”

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I had a chance to talk with Mangum briefly a couple of times before he left. He and a friend, Mark Lamoureux, another solar installer who works in Keene, are flying down, taking with them the five solar systems, the food, the seeds, and the water purification systems.

Mangum said he carefully chose an airline that would allow two carry-on and two checked bags per person, and that he and Lamoreux planned their luggage to accommodate as many aid goods as possible.

It is really hard to imagine all that going onto a plane with two people. What really astonishes me, however, is the specifications of the solar systems he is taking.

I would imagine a 1-kilowatt system with charge controller, inverter, and battery might cost upwards of $5,000. Nevertheless, these five systems will each have 1 kilowatt of capacity along with the accompanying hardware and, all combined, they will only use up $5,000 of the donors' money.

When I asked Mangum how that is possible, his first words were, “We aren't making any money on this. In fact, we are using some of our own. We are paying for the food, and everything. And we are paying for the transportation.”

I asked whether similar systems could be used in New England. He told me these systems were specially designed to operate in the tropics and were rated for temperatures above 60 degrees, so they might not work well in colder areas.

Also, he made the decision to use inexpensive materials so more systems could be made.

“They are pretty cheap,” he said. “They may not be operating in 10 years.” The people in Puerto Rico need help now. Once they have recovered, these small systems can be replaced.

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Joseph Mangum is putting the systems into places where people really need them. He said in an update that the first week he will be in Puerto Rico, he will visit Juncos, Gurabo, Comerío, Barranquitas, Orocovis, Jayuya, and Utuado.

Some of these cities and towns in the interior of the island are not only without electricity and water, but are completely cut off because the roads and bridges have been wiped out.

He said that if he cannot find a way to get to one of these places, he will go to others.

He has a lot of connections in Puerto Rico, and they have been helping organize places for the solar systems. In one place, a close relative lives near a local handyman. His work is very important during the recovery, but without electricity, every repair he does has to be accomplished entirely with hand tools.

The other four systems will be set up in emergency shelters. Each is especially designed to power a small ventilation system during the night, to help cool rooms with large numbers of people sleeping in them. During the daytime, they can be used to charge cell phones, four at a time. And each will power a wifi connection to satellite. Each of these systems will give a number of people a lifeline to the outside world.

I hope to get emails from Joseph periodically. Since Joseph will be traveling in areas that are really cut off from the world, it is hard to know when I will get information. When I do, I will post the information online. I will also be able to provide a periodic summary of Joseph Mangum's work for readers of the print edition of The Commons.

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