Resiliency in Practice: Lessons from Puerto Rico

By: Cody Eaton

 
 A solar array in the community of El Hoyo, Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.

A solar array in the community of El Hoyo, Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.

Whenever discussing the advantages of solar energy, resiliency must be a part of the conversation. With climate change causing an increase in both the frequency and intensity of devastating weather events around the world, decentralized solar appears to be an absolute necessity. Fortunately, community leaders and organizations in Puerto Rico have already begun a significant grassroots movement to build resilience and decrease energy dependence. I spent a week documenting this initiative on a grant from Tufts University’s Institute for Global Leadership.

At the center of this movement lies Resilient Power Puerto Rico, a humanitarian effort that mobilized in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria to install solar arrays atop community centers that delivered relief services directly to people that needed it. Field Director Jan Curet described their work as “a relief effort to start, but it’s more than that, our long term vision continues even once energy is restored to all of Puerto Rico.” After community centers they plan to expand to critical facilities in each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, so that a future disaster won’t plunge residents into the dark once again. The fact that Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure was weak and in need of serious investment was no secret before the hurricane, but the shortfall became painfully apparent afterwards, as people went without power for three to five months in San Juan, with thousands in rural areas continuing to live in the dark.

 A downed powerline outside of the Aguirre Power Complex on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

A downed powerline outside of the Aguirre Power Complex on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

In the mountainous town of Adjuntas I spoke with Wilson Rivera, a father that received a temporary solar installation from local non-profit Casa Pueblo. He said he had called the electric authority three times to ask when they would regain power but thus far, no one has shown up. He and his family had used a generator for months, but it was expensive to maintain and the fumes it emitted caused his and his daughter’s asthma to worsen.

 A generator sits outside the door to Wilson Rivera’s home in Adjuntas.

A generator sits outside the door to Wilson Rivera’s home in Adjuntas.

I later met with Adalberto Santiago in Yabucoa, a town on the east coast of the island where Hurricane Maria first made ground fall. He remains without power nearly nine months later, only running his generator when his grandchildren visit. I asked him about solar, but he said it was too expensive and that there weren’t any organizations making it accessible for people like him.

 Adalberto Santiago stands in the kitchen of his home in Yabucoa, without power nearly nine months after Hurricane Maria.

Adalberto Santiago stands in the kitchen of his home in Yabucoa, without power nearly nine months after Hurricane Maria.

These conversations mirror a reality playing out right here in my home of Massachusetts: solar is often inaccessible for vulnerable populations, and resilience is lacking. It is for this precise reason that we need to continue to accelerate the flow of capital to solar projects in communities that might not be attractive to typical financiers. While the risk of a blackout may be lower in Boston than in Yabucoa, community solar systems are beneficial in both locales, for energy independence boosts resilience, cuts costs, and eliminates the need for polluting generators and power plants.

Ruth Santiago, director of El Coquí Community Center in the coastal town of Salinas, has been working on a campaign to make El Coquí a solar community for three and a half years. It had been slow going, but once people lost power, she said that interest surged immensely. No hay mal que por bien no venga, she told me, good will always come from something bad. We must learn from Maria’s consequences, and prepare for the challenging climate ahead while we still have the time.

At Sunwealth we are acting on this knowledge, join us to help push solar access forward and ensure that energy resilience is established before we need it.

 
Jon Abe