Photographer: Gerald Herbert/AP Photo
It began with a question posed by Richard Birt, a Las Vegas Fire & Rescue captain: What do you need?
The answer for the San Juan fire house was simple enough: electricity. It’s what much of Puerto Rico has needed since Hurricane Maria tore through the commonwealth more than three weeks ago, laying waste to an already weak grid. Without power, basic logistics such as coordinating and transporting equipment had proven insurmountable.
At the station in Barrio Obrero—Spanish for “workers’ neighborhood”—the situation was dire. A single diesel generator failed at times thanks to contaminated fuel. Firefighters were mostly working in darkness, relying on word-of-mouth to serve the mounting needs of a low-income community. “There are more incidents because people are using hibachis, generators and candles,” said Francisco Cruz, a lieutenant with the San Juan fire department. Nearby, a large tree covered in electrical wires blocked a main road to the station, which helps serve the city’s airport.
Birt suggested a micro-grid featuring solar and battery storage and began mobilizing a team to help put it all together. Funding for the project was provided by Empowered by Light (a group backed by Leonardo DiCaprio), rooftop company Sunrun Inc. (which also donated the solar panels), and GivePower, a nonprofit that specializes in solar installation in conflict regions.
The solar industry has taken particular interest in San Juan in the aftermath of the hurricane. It’s primarily a humanitarian effort for these companies, but it’s also a chance to showcase an energy source capable of enduring natural disasters. Tesla Inc. is sending its Powerwall battery systems and Sunrun has sent more than 12,000 pounds of solar products and equipment to the island. The Solar Energy Industries Association has received pledges for more than $1.2 million in product and monetary contributions from its network.
A week and a half after Birt’s initial outreach, a plane arrived in San Juan carrying enough solar panels and batteries to install 18.4 kilowatts worth of systems. The installations in Barrio Obrero were completed two days later, about 13 hours after President Donald Trump, who has noted the commonwealth’s long-standing financial and electrical woes, tweeted: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
Some hope the crisis will spur greater energy self-reliance. “We should be more flexible, to allow regions to have their own systems,” said Marco Antonio Rigau, president of San Juan’s city council, in an interview. “We are not using solar energy completely.”
“We put solar on the roof because the sun comes up every day,” Birt said, who himself has lived off the grid using solar and bateries for more than a dozen years. “It’s not going to run out of diesel like a generator or have a problem. The sun comes up, it charges the battery and the batteries are full every day waiting for the power to go down.”
Sunrun is using these charitable installations, that will allow the firehouses to produce their own power for lights and communications equipment, as a test for setting up more microgrids around the island, said Chris Rauscher, director of public policy for the company.
Providing storage is crucial at this point; solar panels alone can’t provide round-the-clock power. With the grid down, existing panels atop Puerto Rico homes and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. stores that are affiliated with utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, have failed to operate.
Houston-based Sunnova Energy Corp., which has 10,000 residential customers in Puerto Rico who depend on Prepa, is asking battery providers to send shipments to the island on the expectation that restrictions preventing their use will be eliminated. Chief Executive Officer John Berger said he met last week with Governor Ricardo Rossello for assistance “to cut the red tape to allow those batteries to come in and allow our customers to have power.”
But for now, logistics remain a problem. Because of limited cargo space, some goods are being sent to a Miami warehouse. “We are going to continue to solicit donations and try to arrange transportation,” said SEIA spokesman Dan Whitten in an email.
Getting the power back on is the current priority, Governor Ricardo Rosello told a Bloomberg News reporter in San Juan on Friday, but more thought must be given to the future of the energy grid. (He has already held an “initial conversation” with Elon Musk on the subject, he recently tweeted.) The island must “give ourselves an opportunity to not just rebuild the old system but rather to establish a platform so that we can consider microgrids” and other uses of renewable sources, he said.