Chapter II. Reinvention in Puerto Rico
Half a year after Hurricane Maria made landfall, over one hundred thousand Americans are still without power in Puerto Rico. Even among those with access to grid electricity, service remains unreliable.1 You’re probably familiar with some of the unique obstacles Puerto Rico has faced in its slow and incomplete recovery – an outdated electric grid, an insolvent power company, dubious and poorly-considered restoration contracts, a negligent federal government, the island’s geographic isolation, and so on.
If Maria had struck just five or ten years ago, an effective response to these challenges would have been grueling, but relatively straightforward – rebuild the grid and the institutions at fault. Today, the best response requires that we abandon much of what was before – the broken grid, the corrupt energy monopoly, and even the absent federal government.
Puerto Rico isn’t just being rebuilt as it was. It’s being reinvented using the smart, distributed grid of the future.2
Solar PV and energy storage have been central to Puerto Rico’s recovery. A solar + storage3 system can be deployed in a matter of days, and can provide emissions-free power for years on end without relying on limited fuel or grid service. A diesel generator may be initially cheaper, but it requires a steady stream of fuel (a risky proposition on an island during a disaster), spews dangerous fumes, and will sit idly collecting dust once the grid is back online. In other words, it provides an essential service during crises, but poses its own health hazards and is useless under normal circumstances.
A solar + storage system could not be more different. It typically costs more up-front, but can also perform useful, profitable work every day of its lifespan (25+ years for the PV and 10+ years for the battery).4 Moreover, it’s simply a better backup power supply than a generator. Resilient solar is emissions-free, requires little to no maintenance, and its fuel - sunlight - is free and plentiful.
Natural disasters can gravely injure the grid – a grid losing a piece of its distribution system is a bit like a human losing an arm. In this totally-apt analogy, a generator is like band-aid slapped on the wound. Also, this band-aid happens to be a bit poisonous. On the other hand5, a solar + storage system is like a bionic arm fitted with all sorts of cool hidden tools. Sure, the arm costs more, but while the band-aid might help the wound heal for a few days after the trauma, the arm will be useful every day for years to come. Plus, it’s an excellent conversation-starter. And it’s not poisonous!
With all this in mind, Solar One donated 13 kilowatts-DC of solar panels to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. This is not a band-aid solution, but a long-term investment in a cleaner, more reliable, and more resilient6 energy sector in Puerto Rico. Our friends at the Coastal Marine Resource Center have done amazing work deploying solar + storage using our panels, as well as PV and batteries provided by other generous partners. CMRC is collaborating with local students (now paid solar apprentices) to install these panels and batteries on shipping containers that will be sited across the island. Each container will be overseen by a local café owner, and will become a long-term resilient communications hub for the community. Better yet, the apprentices’ experience on this project will help them find work in Puerto Rico’s booming solar sector. A hearty thanks and congratulations to these renewable energy gurus: Lembra Rivera, Andrés Justiniano, Alejandro Rodriguez, Shane Kouba, and Dwayne Escola.
To be clear, this is only a small first step towards a more resilient Puerto Rico. The island is still in crisis, and requires far more support than it's getting. However, it’s not just the scale, but the nature of this intervention that matters. Puerto Rico – and even New York City – doesn’t need a band-aid solution. It needs a distributed renewable energy revolution.