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Solar Power Is Helping Some Puerto Rico Homes Avoid Hurricane Fiona Blackouts

8 minute read

“Thank you Casa Pueblo. My daughter was able to do her dialysis. We’re forever grateful,” wrote Nery Torres in Spanish on the sustainability nonprofit’s Facebook page, on Sept. 19, just days after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico as a Category 1 storm. It was one of countless comments from residents expressing gratitude for their solar panel installations providing a reliable, or in Torres’ family’s case, life saving energy supply in times of emergency.

Fiona cut power across the whole of Puerto Rico, leaving over 1.1 million residents without electricity as of Tuesday, and over 760,000 without water. The exception were homes that had functioning generators or solar panels on their roofs. And for many people like Torres, that’s thanks to efforts from local nonprofits like Casa Pueblo, which have been the driving force behind helping many on the island turn to solar.

Puerto Rico has long suffered from blackouts ever since Hurricane Maria upended its electricity grid. As solar power proves resilient in the face of this latest hurricane, community organizers, nonprofits, and environmental advocates are calling for a solar revolution in Puerto Rico—the clean energy will help them get off a polluting, unreliable fossil-fuelled grid, and better weather the impacts of climate change.

“Hurricane Fiona is just one more example of the urgency needed to transition to an electrical system that’s resilient and provides people what they need, which is rooftop solar and storage,” says Cathy Kunkel, an energy program manager at San Juan-based sustainability nonprofit Cambio PR. “Puerto Rico needs something that’s not going to go out every time a major storm hits, because we’re just getting more and more of them.”

Hurricane Fiona comes exactly at the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, one of the deadliest Puerto Rican natural disasters that lead to the largest blackout in U.S. history. Now years later, the island’s recovery remains incomplete. Only 21% of post-storm projects have been completed by the government, and more than 3,600 homes still had makeshift blue tarps as roofs going into the latest hurricane, according to the Associated Press.

The damage wrought by Fiona will likely worsen anger in Puerto Rico at that slow progress. Last year, authorities in the territory hired LUMA Energy, a joint venture by two U.S. and Canadian companies, to take charge of improvements to the electric grid. Puerto Rican residents and celebrities have been protesting against the privatization for months, calling for an early termination of LUMA’s 15 year contract. Protesters say LUMA has failed to stop regular power outages in Puerto Rico, and that they are paying far higher energy bills than other U.S. citizens. LUMA has blamed both those problems on years of underinvestment and neglect by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which managed electric infrastructure before the private company took over last year.

There have been other efforts to transition the grid in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted in 2017 that he could rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid with solar power technology. Tesla soon began distributing resources, including sending solar panels and energy storage batteries to necessary hospitals. But the company’s push towards building clean energy microgrids suffered from “supply shortages, regulatory hurdles and a lack of long-term planning,” according to HuffPost.

Despite Tesla’s failed efforts, many continue to argue that switching to solar power is the strongest option moving forward. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, solar panels have just a 0.05% failure rate when it comes to reliability and lifespan. “The surest path to lowering rates and stabilizing the finances of the electrical system is to end Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels,” writes Tom Sanzillo, the director of financial analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Puerto Rico is well placed for a transition to solar power. A preliminary study from the National Lab of Renewable Energy’s PR100 program found that Puerto Rico could produce over four times the amount of energy it needs from rooftop solar power thanks to how much sunlight the island is exposed to. Already, Puerto Rico is among the top ten places in the U.S. with the most home solar installation per-capita, coming in 9th ahead of Colorado (as well as Washington D.C., and New Jersey which sit just outside the top 10).

Casa Pueblo, run by local community organizers, has been at the forefront of Puerto Rico’s solar transition. In the last few years, they have installed solar energy systems in over 100 hundred homes and over 30 businesses in the Adjuntas, a mountainous town in the center of the island. They’ve personally been operating their base on solar energy since 1999.

Ada Ramona Miranda has assisted the Casa Pueblo team with installing solar roofs for over 20 businesses so that they don’t have to rely on the expensive, fragile electrical grid. “I wanted to offer communities the possibility of enjoying sustainable and renewable energy,” Miranda explained in a Duolingo podcast episode earlier this year. “Energy independence is essential for people if there is another emergency.”

But the group is not alone in its efforts. Nonprofits like Solar Responders have worked to install solar panels in fire stations on the island to ensure first responders are able to continue their work when the electric grid fails. They’ve helped install renewable energy in nearly 20% of the fire stations in Puerto Rico.

“When a storm comes and the power goes out, first responders are in saving mode. It’s not their role to figure out the power situation,” says Hunter Johansson, founder of Solar Responders. Johansson hopes to continue distributing solar power roofs and battery storage to the remaining 77 fire stations on the island, he says.

But the push to go solar has largely been left to the hands of these nonprofits, or in many cases, individuals themselves, rather than the government. There are, on average, over 2,800 new monthly solar project installations to buildings in Puerto Rico, according to an August report LUMA submitted to Puerto Rico’s Department of Energy. “The numbers speak for themselves and these are people doing it on their own,” says Sanzillo. “From an institutional point of view, this is a quintessential statement of market demand.”

The demand to go solar is clear, but ensuring all communities have access to it remains a major concern. For Puerto Rican residents, going solar largely comes down to whether or not you can afford it. The average median household income in Puerto Rico is just over $21,000. In San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, the average cost to install home solar is between $10,000 and $12,000. That makes the upfront cost of solar out of reach for “the majority of the population who are left stuck with this very debilitated and poorly managed grid,” says Cambio PR’s Kunkel.

To combat this environmental injustice and make solar accessible to everyone, money from Puerto Rico’s $13 billion post-Maria federal recovery aid needs to be allocated to create centralized and distributed solar energy, instead of centralized natural gas and diesel plants, says Sanzillo. Creating institutional incentives for low-income families like grants or federal tax credits could help, he adds.

While PREPA and LUMA continue to prioritize natural gas, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, have pushed a plan that positions renewable energy as an economical way to help balance their budget against Puerto Rico’s $70 billion public debt and reduce the more than $2 billion annual cost of importing fuel.

“Going solar isn’t only more reliable, but more affordable,” says Sanzillo. “If they followed that plan, they would be delighted to see it as a real wind on their back.”

In the meantime, as people recover from the latest hurricane, Casa Pueblo continues to share updates about how their solar-powered microgrids are holding up well against strong winds and flooding.

The morning of Sept. 20, with the slow recovery process just beginning, the Casa Pueblo team was getting ready to distribute over 2,000 solar lamps to their community after raising a blue and green flag outside of their headquarters—a symbol of their “energy insurrection.” In Spanish, they wrote on Facebook: “We’re summoning the government to build energy security for all.”

—With reporting by Ciara Nugent.

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Write to Mariah Espada at mariah.espada@time.com