Step by Powerful Step, Citizens Lead Puerto Rico into Its Solar Future

Citizen-led solar initiatives in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria remedied immediate local challenges and forged increased resilience using sustainable power, serving as an important example in clean energy development.

September 19, 2019

Steph and Chaya, two of Solar Libre’s first cohort of trainees (Photo by Melanie La Rosa)

As Bermuda braces for Tropical Storm Humberto, the Bahamas remains decimated after Hurricane Dorian, and Caribbean residents white-knuckle through the end of the 2019 hurricane season, it is an opportune time to reflect on the impact of the deadly Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. The cataclysmic destruction, complete with the unprecedented breakdown of Puerto Rico’s entire electrical grid, galvanized island residents, the Puerto Rican diaspora, and other Caribbean nations into some of the world’s forefront solar innovators. Most exciting is the initiation of dozens of community-based solar projects, each introducing creative new ways of using solar to solve problems beyond merely providing electricity. With these community-led initiatives, Puerto Rico is poised as a model for other island nations in embracing the power of the sun.

Necessity truly is the mother of invention, and in Puerto Rico, it also forced progress. As world leaders negotiate climate goals, communities around the globe continue to be pummeled by hurricanes and other disastrous weather. Massive power outages in South America, New York City, and Central America reveal the fragility of critical infrastructure. At the same time, community-based solar projects in Puerto Rico have quickly and effectively remedied immediate local challenges and forged increased resilience using clean, sustainable power. Three of these initiatives—located in La Riviera, Salinas, and Isabela—demonstrate the power of citizen-led projects to leapfrog over bureaucracy, politics, and technical challenges and lead the way to the future of energy.

Shifting the Paradigm with Community Solar

“Community solar” is an umbrella term for any project designed to have benefits beyond just making electricity. This is particularly important for Puerto Rico. The island’s longstanding economic challenges, compounded by an intense prescription for austerity, had already compelled a steady flow of residents to leave the island. According to a September 2018 study by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, migration from the island doubled in the months after Hurricane Maria from the already-high migration rates of the previous two years.

Lethargic government relief efforts were aided by solar powerhouses including Tesla, Sonnen, Blue Planet Energy, and other companies from the U.S. and Europe that managed to navigate post-hurricane shipping challenges to bring much-needed equipment, including cutting edge batteries and thousands of solar panels. These companies donated equipment to relief efforts and worked with established Puerto Rican solar companies. One of the island’s leading solar companies, Next Energy, reported a surge of sales of consumer sized batteries, brand new to energy markets. However, for some, the influx of investors raised fears of disaster capitalism. Some residents started asking: Who would be the true beneficiaries of this clean energy influx?

Electricity is like a cash crop: An investor decides to start making electricity just as they might invest in sugar cane or dairy. The difference until very recent years was that electricity could not be stored. This meant the investor needed an agreement with a utility company to buy the power they made, before they could even consider building a solar farm to ensure, that they would be able to send the electricity to the grid immediately upon being generated. Puerto Rico has only one grid and only one utility, which meant that the power company had enormous control over who could and could not make and sell electricity. With a utility body as notorious for corruption as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), fostering local investment in the island’s solar economy seemed impossible. In the first weeks following Hurricane Maria, as Elon Musk and former Governor Roberto Rosselló conversed publically on Twitter about Puerto Rico being Tesla’s “flagship project,” the prospects looked bright for well-funded international investors, but grim for locally-based community solar groups.

An overhead view of solar panels in La Riviera (Photo by Leando Fabrizi)

Enter community solar projects. Community solar shifts this paradigm. Any self-designated community—a town, a church, a small neighborhood—can serve as the investor. Some community solar projects focus on providing affordable loans to families to purchase their own small rooftop systems. Others build their own infrastructure, such as solar farms and batteries, with an aim to separate from the utility grid altogether. For Puerto Rico, a major technological game changer was the availability of large-capacity and consumer-scale batteries, which arrived on the island during relief efforts. These batteries created a means for community groups of all types to build off-grid solar power systems, which, when properly built, create electricity essentially free of charge after the initial investment.

Off-grid solar is a significant Puerto Rico for many reasons. The topography of high mountains and miles of unpopulated beaches meant that population clusters, overwhelmingly in coastal towns, were served by a grid of power lines stretching for miles through dense rainforests and over ravines. Prone to outages from falling trees and debris, or from poles washing away in floods, simply having fewer power lines reduces the likelihood the grid will fail.

Furthermore, PREPA, already in disrepair before the hurricane and slated for privatization, faces deep distrust. For years before Maria, island residents had endured extremely poor service at extremely high costs as Puerto Rico boasted the unfortunate distinction of having the second highest cost for electricity in the United States. With no meter on the sun, once a family invests in the off-grid equipment, the electricity is free. And after the storm, many simply wanted to take personal action to mitigate their contributions to greenhouse gases—no small consideration on an island that had just felt the impact of climate change.

Pumping Water Off the Grid

Juan Santana is the elected local leader of the middle-class La Riviera community, located high in the mountains south of San Juan. After Hurricane Maria, when La Riviera’s water pumps stopped working, Juan and his neighbors were left without a means to access drinkable water. Their water pump went hundreds of feet down into the mountain, and while its mechanics were still intact, without electricity, the pump could not function.

For seven months, neighbors in La Riviera passed a hat to buy a diesel generator and the gas to run it. They pumped just enough water each week to fill a large hilltop cistern. Gravity then delivered water to homes. This fragile system was rife with problems, including being impacted by frequent gas shortages. In the months immediately after Hurricane Maria, Juan told me, PREPA representatives had visited the community and promised that the power would be back on soon. But each time, it never happened.

Facing this inadequate government response, the fragility and unsustainability of a water system running on a diesel generator, and the specter of the next hurricane season looming just months away, La Riviera residents took reconstruction on themselves. Through Christian networks, they connected with Water Mission, a South Carolina-based Christian non-profit engineering organization. Water Mission had not previously worked in Puerto Rico, but Maria changed that. Within a few months, the organization opened a field office in Puerto Rico, and had created a supply of donated gear and utility-scale battery systems. One partner was the Hawaii-based Blue Planet Energy, which specializes in batteries for rugged island environments and donated many large capacity batteries to the relief effort.

Working with local solar installers, Water Mission helped the community build a solar power system on the roof of the small enclosure that houses La Riviera’s water pump. Once charged, the pump was operational under the power of the sun.

Mark Baker, Water Mission; Juan Santana, La Riviera; and members of the La Riviera community (Photo by Leando Fabrizi)

At a celebration for the newly built water-pumping system in April 2018, Juan Santana underlined how the solar-powered pump not only met the community’s day-to-day needs, but also set residents up to better weather the next storm, which climate change will inevitably bring with intensity. “When September arrives, which is always when the vast majority of storms occur…and of course makes us all nervous, but now with this activated solar system, we can be calmer,” he said. “As the storms pass, no matter what happens, we will still have this system to bring water.”

Water Mission restored water pumps in over 40 communities, working with partners including the EPA and FEMA. These solar powered water pumps solve one crucial problem—providing water after a hurricane. The creation of these alternative systems was only possible in Puerto Rico due to donated equipment and the hurricane relief efforts, but nonetheless they have created a shining example of how solar can be part of resilient infrastructure that can potentially save lives.

Finding a Lifesaving Force in Community Solar

Securing clean energy and developing resilient infrastructure are important advantages of solar, but other benefits can also include cleaner air, lower electric costs, good jobs in a growing field, and improved public health.

On a blazing hot Saturday morning six months after Hurricane Maria, local residents crowded into the community center in El Coquí, a small urbanización (residential area) in southeast Puerto Rico. This community, still grappling with Maria’s damage, had been advocating for solar for years.

Inside the community center, where piles of relief supplies from New York— generators, clothing, cases of water—lined a wall, over 20 people gathered for a meeting on community solar. While the El Coquí Community Center had power, debris from the hurricane was everywhere. Downed power cables and a broken light pole snaked through the street in front of the center.

Salinas, where El Coquí is located, and the neighboring town of Guayama are perched on Jobos Bay, which is home to a marine estuary populated with manatees and multiple species of turtles. These rich waters support a local fishing industry and provide food in a region with few economic opportunities. Salinas and Guayama are also home to the island’s two most polluting coal and oil power plants, also located on Jobos Bay. The island’s only remaining coal-burning power plant is the AES Power Plant. Slated by new energy legislation to be shut down by 2020, the AES plant is notorious for the toxins it has released in the form of coal ash, spewing runoff into Jobos Bay. Over the years, residents living in the shadow of the coal plant have participated in campaigns and litigation to ban many of AES’s most polluting activities and to push for a shift to clean power. Hurricane Maria underlined the urgent need for sustainable alternatives, and for the fastest possible implementation.                                                                                                                             

When Hurricane Maria hit, the alternative of solar power quickly escalated from being a goal for a more sustainable future to being a lifesaving force in the present. Humanitarian organizations such Brooklyn-based non-profit El Puente distributed small solar lanterns in relief boxes and offered emergency rooftop solar power systems to community centers. Neither was a perfect solution, but all provided some degree of power amid an apocalyptical blackout.

One of the many activists who helped build the movement for community solar in El Coquí is environmental lawyer Ruth Santiago. At the community center meeting, Santiago and the rest of the activists—including an engineering professor, several members of the El Coquí community board, a local environmental organizer, and several students—reviewed the emergency solar power system the El Coquí Community Center was about to receive. This technical part of the meeting concluded surprisingly quickly. They then moved on to the main concerns: how to ensure that the new solar technology would help the most vulnerable community members and that the wave of solar arriving in Puerto Rico would create careers and economic development for local residents.

Santiago summed up their goals: “What we're striving for is that communities have a voice and have participation in this very essential, basic human service, which is electricity. That's the reason why we're spearheading community solar as a project in Puerto Rico.”

Six months later, members of Coquí Solar had become part of an island-wide movement urging the Puerto Rican legislature to pass laws favorable to communities creating their own solar projects. Along with a wide range of collaborators, including the worker’s union of PREPA, several environmental and energy organizations, and several professors from the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, this island-wide group drafted a proposal, “Queremos Sol.” This comprehensive proposal presented a detailed energy vision for Puerto Rico, including the elimination of fossil fuels, using the burgeoning solar movement to enhance local economies, and significantly expanding rooftop solar and microgrids. They presented it to the Puerto Rican legislature in October 2018, in advance of the legislature passing a new energy law.

After many delays, the legislature finally voted on the Public Energy Policy Law of Puerto Rico in April 2019, outlining goals such as 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. “Queremos Sol” was far more comprehensive than the law that was ultimately passed, but many of the ideas outlined in it were reflected favorably, including expanding distributed generation, creating microgrids, and a timeline for moving to 100 percent renewable energy. While the new law represented a positive development, the same week it passed, Puerto Rican and U.S. government officials also started planning to build natural gas infrastructure in San Juan, showing a very weak commitment to the 100 percent renewable energy goals.

In the meantime, Coquí Solar continued growing. They had received their rooftop solar system, and were working with an engineering team from MIT. When solar advocates hosted the first-ever island-wide meeting for solar advocacy, youth members of Coquí Solar presented about their local efforts alongside influential advocates who had drafted “Queremos Sol.” This inaugural meeting brought together dozens of solar advocates from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and the mainland United States, fortifying this network and bolstering ongoing Caribbean-wide organizing for energy democracy.

Building Local Capacity with Solar Training

Changing policy and building movements aims for the big picture, but some relief efforts aimed for hyper-local, ultra-agile solutions. After Hurricane Maria, Walter Meyer and Jennifer Bolstad, an urban designer and landscape architect who had designed and installed emergency solar power systems in New York City’s Rockaways during the power outage after Hurricane Sandy, put out a call to action to their community. Support flowed in from friends, colleagues, and humanitarian groups in the form of donated solar panels and volunteer installers. Even the New York governor’s office chipped in.

By early October, Meyer and Bolstad had gathered enough solar panels and crew to launch a trip to Puerto Rico, with a goal of building donated emergency power systems on community centers in rural locations. Each power system was small—just a few panels—but generated enough energy to keep the lights on, and maybe power a small fridge for medicine. The installers selected locations based on where community members were already gathering for support and connection.

Tom Meyer at Isabela Airport (Photo by Melanie La Rosa)

Meyer and Bolstad’s first few trips to the island with the initiative they dubbed Solar Libre: Puerto Rico were rocky, to say the least. Shipping the panels while the airports still closed regularly was nothing short of a minor miracle. Finding a plane to take the valuable donated equipment was only part of it; once on the island they had to contend with bureaucratic red tape, a lack of trucks to transport goods, and questionable roads. Meyer’s father, Tom, a resident of Isabela, led the Solar Libre operations on the ground. One morning at an Isabela bakery, he ran into an airport worker who disclosed a new, unexpected challenge: the solar panels could possibly by confiscated upon arrival by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or FEMA. But the worker happened to manage cargo bays at the Isabela airport and offered to keep an eye on Solar Libre’s panels once they arrived to ensure they would not be confiscated. It worked, and by November 2017, Solar Libre had installed their first emergency solar systems at local community centers.

But Solar Libre’s vision went beyond just importing and installing solar panels. From the outset, Meyer and Bolstad sketched out the phases. First, triage. Then, forming an organization to build 100 emergency solar power systems by the one-year anniversary of the hurricane. Then, starting a solar training program for island residents to empower them to ultimately take over managing and continuing to build solar power alternatives.

By September 20, 2018, the first anniversary of the hurricane, they had accomplished every one of these goals. They marshalled dozens of volunteers and thousands of donated solar panels, and formed a functioning non-profit. They secured a donation from the Victor Cruz Foundation to launch a solar training program. Six months later, by March 2019, their first cohort of trainees—all island residents, half of them young women—completed their first unsupervised installation on the roof of MAVI, an Arecibo-based organization serving people with disabilities.

The training program, led by experienced solar installer from New York, prepared students to pass the certification exam of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, or NABCEP. This would qualify them to work in any solar company. This certification provided a way to stay on the island with prospects for a great career.

While this training group was small—eight students—it was a powerful starting point, and the goal is to double the size of the next cohort. Solar Libre is also notable for creating the first solar training program on the island focused on addressing the gender divide in clean energy. They will continue to recruit cohorts with at least half women. In addition to transferring equipment, knowledge, and training to Puerto Rico, Solar Libre's hyper-local solution evolved into a working model for ongoing solar development.

Leading by Example with Solar Energy

Global transition to clean energy will be a very complex maze against a well-funded opposition. Each of these projects in Puerto Rico represents a small but meaningful step towards a clean energy future. Dozens of solar projects throughout Puerto Rico serve as living proof of how well photovoltaic energy actually works. The island also now boasts a nearly-unmatched variety of solar in use from off-grid battery systems, to rooftop solar, utility scale solar farms, and small community solar projects—as well as a population eager to adopt this technology.

Without the massive influx of donated technology after Hurricane Maria, it is unlikely the island would have made it to this point. But the most important factor was the creativity, talent, and motivation of the community who put this technology to use—without their vision, it might all be gear sitting in airport hangers. Two years after Hurricane Maria devastated the Isle of Enchantment, Puerto Rico might well now be the world leader in innovative solar development.

Melanie La Rosa is assistant professor of Media Communications and Visual Arts at Pace University, and a filmmaker finishing a feature documentary, How To Power A City, which follows clean energy coming into communities around the country, including Puerto Rico. 

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