From Emergency to Recovery: How Solar Energy is Powering Puerto Rico

From Emergency to Recovery: How Solar Energy is Powering Puerto Rico

Guest blog by Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director, The Solar Foundation 

It’s been nearly two years since Hurricane Maria swept across the Caribbean, but Puerto Rico is still coming to terms with what happened. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of the hurricane, according to the official count (other studies put this toll even higher), and the island suffered the longest blackout in American history. It took 11 months to fully restore power to the island, costing $3.2 billion in government funding. Today, with extreme weather becoming more frequent and more severe as a consequence of climate change, Puerto Rico is taking steps to rebuild and prepare for the next storm.

One of the most life-threatening aspects of the disaster was the impact on health care. Without power, hospitals could not keep the lights on or store food and medicine safely. Transportation breakdowns made it difficult or impossible to access medical services in an emergency. Especially hard hit were the remote and mountainous parts of the island, where help often took weeks to arrive.

At The Solar Foundation, we recognized that the link between electricity and health access was one of the most urgent needs to address in the hurricane’s aftermath. In the months after the hurricane, we coordinated with solar companies, humanitarian relief organizations, and other nonprofits to support the recovery. While many organizations helped provide immediate relief after the storm, we also saw the need for long-term assistance to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure and position the island for growth. Enhancing Puerto Rico’s resilience to better prepare the island for future disasters would entail building a more robust electricity grid to help limit the damage and impact from extreme storms in the years to come.

In this context, we knew that harnessing solar energy provided the key to support the island’s recovery and resilience. The cost of solar energy insallations has dropped more than 70% in the last decade, and there are now 2 million solar PV installations in the United States, with 50% of the total occurring in the last three years, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood MacKenzie Power & renewables. When coupled with battery storage, solar provides backup electricity even in the event of a power outage. Additionally, solar presents an opportunity to lower the carbon footprint of energy. The clean energy technology generates power without increasing levels of carbon-dioxide emissions, which would further exacerbate climate change and ensuing extreme weather events.

Under an umbrella group called Solar Saves Lives, we invited the greater solar industry and the general public to make monetary or equipment donations toward supporting the rebuilding effort. To date, several million dollars have been raised for solar energy projects from various funding sources. Our partners have included the Clinton Foundation, Direct Relief, Hispanic Federation, Operation Blessing International, and leading solar companies and organizations on the ground in Puerto Rico.

One of our ongoing, central priorities for this initiative is to install solar and storage projects at medical centers across the island. To accomplish this, we have partnered with the Asociación de Salud Primaria de Puerto Rico, which runs a network of clinics across Puerto Rico that provide essential health services regardless of ability to pay.  Overall, we have identified over 60 of these clinics that would benefit from solar and storage and we intend to deliver our support to as many as possible as funding becomes available. Our goal is to equip each clinic with enough solar and storage capacity to ensure they meet critical needs during a power outage, such as medicine refrigeration, IT services, and vital emergency room functions. Covering these critical loads allows us to use limited resources to achieve the greatest impact.

We completed the first solar installation in early 2018 at the Migrant Health Center in Maricao. This clinic is the only medical facility for the community’s 6,000 inhabitants, in a region that is one of the lowest populated on the island and one of the least likely to receive immediate assistance after a disaster. We worked with our partners to install an 18 kW solar PV system (about four times the size of a solar installation for a typical house), along with a 40 kWh battery to provide backup power.

To date, Solar Saves Lives partners have installed solar and storage at six clinics, and numerous others will be completed this year. Each installation is performed by a local solar company that is vetted by our partners, and we work closely with each community to ensure we meet their needs.

Funding for these projects comes from Direct Relief, Hispanic Federation, and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. We’re proud to have additional support from several crowdfunding campaigns, which allow individuals to make an impact with smaller donations. Individuals or organizations interested in making a donation can do so here.

There is so much more work that remains to be done, and our commitment in Puerto Rico is long-term. In addition to the clinics, we are pursuing other solar projects at important community centers including a major solar installation at the largest produce market in Puerto Rico, the Plaza del Mercado de Río Piedras, to be completed later this year.

Looking ahead, we also hope these projects will help facilitate large-scale solar development in Puerto Rico. Today, the island obtains only 1% of its electricity from solar, but the potential is simply enormous. In Puerto Rico, the available energy from the sun is approximately the same as in Los Angeles, one of the U.S.’s leading solar markets. This year, Puerto Rico’s legislature passed a new law to obtain 40% of its energy from renewables by 2025 and 100% by 2050, while providing new regulatory incentives for solar energy growth.

In the scope of the vast devastation from Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans are responding with a strong determination to rebuild their lives. We hope that our solar energy work in Puerto Rico will not only help meet immediate needs for electricity and health care, but also help point the way toward a sustainable future for Puerto Rico.

If you are interested in supporting the Solar Foundation to install solar and storage in Puerto Rico, please visit the Solar Saves Lives website or contact Andrea Luecke at aluecke@solarfound.org.