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Off the grid: Finding light after the dark from Hurricane Maria

By Mary Babic
When the entire island of Puerto Rico suffered a blackout in late April, there were pockets of light where people had invested in alternative sources of energy. In the central highland region of Adjuntas, the store Colmado Cielomar had just had a solar panel installed by Casa Pueblo. Throughout the blackout, the proprietor, Luz M Breban Mercado, managed to offer roasted chicken and perishable goods, as well as refrigeration– and a lighted place to gather. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam

No matter how the numbers are tallied, the fact is that many thousands of US citizens are still without power in Puerto Rico – more than seven months after Hurricane Maria tore into the aging and fragile power grid across the island. Recently, the US Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources held a hearing to “examine the current status of Puerto Rico’s electric grid and proposals for the future operation of the grid.” 

This is the exact right moment to question the grid itself. As the island is still struggling to rebuild a variety of infrastructure systems that were devastated by the historic storm last September, it’s also getting ready to face a new hurricane season (beginning June 1). And it’s raising questions about how to repair and rebuild in sustainable and resilient ways.

“Honestly, while we welcome efforts to repair the grid, we’re also worried that it is not being built back in a truly sustainable way,” says Brenda Guzman, Oxfam program officer in San Juan. “We’re concerned that the work so far was just for the interim and patched back together--it won’t be adequate to stand up to hurricane-force winds, which are just around the corner. We need to move quickly into the long-term rebuilding phase, as the short-term measures won’t be sufficient.”

While power has been restored to most of the island, deep problems persist. First, many communities (especially in the central highlands and on the islands of Vieques and Culebra) are still without power (while the official number of people without power stands at roughly 29,000, many experts say that’s a drastic underestimate). On the smaller islands, the damage to the submarine power lines was so severe that estimated time to repair has gone from two years to four years (infrastructure needs to be relocated due to coastal erosion). 

Second, many communities are still getting power from generators rather than the grid; not only is this costly, the constant diesel fumes impact air quality and exacerbate respiratory problems. Finally, blackouts, both local and island-wide, are frequent; the entire island lost power for several hours in March and again in April. Many people who rejoiced when their lights came back on now face long stretches when they’re left in darkness.

However, while the hurricane broke it, it also opened an opportunity to fix it – and do it right.

Finding alternative sources

Fortunately, there are viable alternatives for building back, the most popular being solar power. Guzman notes, “When you consider our geographical location and weather conditions, solar makes so much sense.”

Another sustainable option is rain harvesting; Guzman notes, “Given our conditions, we should be considering and aggressively planning this method.” And she notes that any efforts that aim for resiliency should consider that critical infrastructure systems (water and energy) need to be relocated, since they are located in vulnerable areas (floodways and coastal areas subject to erosion and the effects of sea level rise). “This applies to a large amount of housing stock as well,” she says.

In fact, some organizations on the island have been working on building better ways for many years, and see this as a crucial moment. Notes Guzman, “In Adjuntas, in the highlands, the folks at Casa Pueblo have been investing in solar energy for nearly 40 years. They really want to see Puerto Rico as a shining beacon of alternative energy.

After the hurricane, Oxfam was proud to partner with Casa Pueblo, a community center which has been leading the way toward energy self-sufficiency and ecological preservation. The center--which houses a music school, a butterfly garden, a radio station, a cinema, and more—runs entirely on solar energy.

During the dark days after Maria, when communication was nearly impossible for millions on the island, the radio station was a vital source of news and information for countless people. They have been pioneers in solar-powered streetlights (Postirriquenos), as well as small and larger refrigerators, which are crucial in helping preserve perishable medicines (insulin) and foods in the warm climate.

When whole towns go dark, people are anxious to find an oasis that provides essential services, such as refrigeration, light, communications, and cooked food. Casa Pueblo has been leading the way in providing solar panels to grocery stores in small towns in the highlands.

The Massol family founded and still run Casa Pueblo. They are determined to find, test, and model solutions for sustainability. “We provide the spark, and others join us. We hope to be a magnet for people with good intentions.”

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, people in the central highlands endured months without access to electricity through the island’s power grid. However, in the region of Adjuntas, where the local community center Casa Pueblo had invested in systems to provide solar-powered capacity to homes and businesses, hundreds of people managed better. Arturo Massol explains the package that provides a solar panel, battery, and refrigerator that keeps going as long as the sun shines. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam

Another Oxfam partner, the Community Foundation, is leading Project 330, which is putting 100 solar systems in 100 community clinics in 100 days.

Congress dragging its feet on vision for the future

At the hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy on May 8, many who spoke said that they were not tasked to “build back better,” but to implement interim measures. Sen. Murkowski (R-Alaska) was disappointed because she had hoped the Stafford Act revisions would have allowed the island to start building back better; she was disheartened that it will be rebuilding twice: the ongoing repairs now and later the long-term rebuilding.

“My fear is always after every disaster that the news is there for a cycle, the relief efforts are there for only a limited period of time, and then we move off to the next disaster, and the people who remain vulnerable feel forgotten,” Murkowski said at the hearing. 

The witness for DOE said they have RFPs out for building a micro grid on the islands of Viequez and Culebra, but several Senators questioned why this isn’t happening on the main island, and why they aren’t investing more in solar power.

“This is a moment to invest in solutions that will endure,” says Guzman. “We hope to see funds and efforts going toward alternative systems that will stand up to extreme weather for decades.”

The path to build back better

We call on Congress to direct resources to restore power to all customers in Puerto Rico; to invest in more resilient systems, including micro-grids and solar; and to rely on local expertise in Puerto Rico in planning for long-term solutions. 

  • It’s imperative that the federal government provide adequate funds and effort to restore power to all customers in Puerto Rico. US citizens in Puerto Rico deserve the same reliable provision of electricity that is provided to customers in every state on the mainland.
  • At the same time, it’s vital to consider building systems that can withstand any future blows. In December, the Puerto Rico Energy Resiliency Working Group released a report that recommended a coordinated system of micro-grids and other technologies to optimize the transmission and distribution of energy, as well as further investment in renewable sources such as solar.
  • Puerto Ricans should be leading and engaged with planning. For example, the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission has been working with local leaders across Puerto Rico to develop recommendations in the areas of energy, economic development, education, health and social services, natural and physical infrastructure, and housing.

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