“Thank you Casa Pueblo. I was able for my daughter to get dialysis. We’re forever grateful,” wrote Nery Torres in Spanish on the sustainability nonprofit’s Facebook pageOn Sept. 19, just days before Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, it was one of many comments from residents. 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 shut off power to Puerto Rico. As of Tuesday night, over 1.1 million people were without power and more than 760,000 had no water. Homes with solar panels or generators on their roofs were the exception. 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’s electricity grid has been disrupted by Hurricane Maria for many years. Puerto Rico is no stranger to blackouts. 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 hits exactly five years after Hurricane Maria’s death. It is the most devastating natural disaster in Puerto Rican history, and led to the longest blackout in U.S. History. Now years later, the island’s recovery remains incomplete. According to the Associated Press, only 21% have been completed in post-storm reconstruction projects. More than 3600 homes had temporary blue tarps for roofs when the hurricane hit.
Fiona’s damage will probably worsen the anger in Puerto Rico due to its slow progress. Two Canadian and U.S. companies joined forces to create LUMA Energy in order to improve the electrical 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. Protestors claim that LUMA is failing to control regular power outages in Puerto Rico. They also complain about higher energy costs than U.S. citizens. LUMA attributes both of these issues to years of neglect and underinvestment at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, (PREPA), who managed the electrical infrastructure until the privatized company assumed control last year.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, there have been several other attempts to shift the grid. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted in 2017 that he could rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid with solar power technology. Tesla quickly began to distribute resources. This included sending necessary hospitals solar panels and energy storage battery batteries. 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. A study done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that solar panels are reliable and last a long time with a failure rate of 0.05%. “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’s location is ideal for the transition to solar energy. 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. Puerto Rico currently ranks ninth in the U.S. for home solar installations per-capita. It is also ahead of Colorado, Washington D.C. and New Jersey, which are just outside the top 10.
Casa Pueblo, run by local community organizers, has been at the forefront of Puerto Rico’s solar transition. Over 100 000 homes have been fitted with solar panels in the Adjuntas area, which is a small mountainous community in the middle of Puerto Rico. 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.”
The group’s efforts are not the only ones. Solar Responders and other non-profits have installed solar panels at fire stations across the island in order to provide power for first responders. 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 plans to distribute solar power roofs to other fire stations around the island and to store batteries, he states.
However, the majority of the solar push has been left up to these non-profits or, in some cases, to individuals rather than to 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.”
Although there’s a lot of demand for going solar, it is still a big concern that not all areas have the opportunity. It all comes down to your ability to afford solar. Puerto Rico’s median household income is less than $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. Additionally, federal tax credits and grants can be made available to low-income families as incentives.
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.”
Casa Pueblo is still open as the people heal from this hurricane. share updatesLearn more about the resilience of their microgrids powered by solar energy to withstand strong winds and flood.
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.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME