Local residents in Puerto Rico built the island’s first community-owned solar microgrid
By Katherine Rapin
For two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Lucy’s Pizza was the only restaurant open in the central mountain town of Adjuntas. The town’s 18,000 residents, like those on the rest of the island, were entirely without electricity.
“No one has power, you can’t get gas, it’s difficult to make food, so everyone came here to eat,” said owner Gustavo Irizarry. “The line,” he gestured down the block along the town’s central plaza, “endless.”
Using a diesel generator, Lucy’s was running at about 75% capacity. The generator was loud, smelly and expensive to run — Irizarry spent $15,000 on diesel in the six months the grid was down. He was often up in the middle of the night to restart the generator because of the risk of losing power to the refrigerators. He didn’t want ingredients to spoil.
Now, nearly six years later, Irizarry is poised to generate his own energy from the sun. He’s one of 14 merchants in downtown Adjuntas who have invested in the island’s first community-owned solar microgrids — expected to go live before this summer.
“After Maria, we saw the vulnerability and the necessity to have an electric system that truly works,” Irizarry said. “To have better, alternative power, to be able to live.”
The microgrid project is the latest effort in a grassroots movement to build energy security in Puerto Rico in the form of solar power. Across the island, groups like Casa Pueblo, which first opened in Adjuntas more than 40 years ago, have relied on deep roots in the community to create local buy-in and make it an equitable transition.
“The microgrid is a major step in taking Puerto Rico from the vulnerability of the centralized fossil fuel system to the aspiration that I think we share in Puerto Rico,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, associate director of Casa Pueblo. “To use [renewable] fuels and generate power at the point of consumption, where it’s needed.”
Microgrids power small networks of buildings with energy that’s generated close to where it’s used, often wind or solar. The systems are typically connected to a central grid, but in the case of an outage they can run on “island mode,” relying solely on locally-generated power and battery storage capacity.
Hurricane Maria damaged 80% of Puerto Rico’s power grid, and the subsequent outages, which lasted for months, contributed to the storm’s death toll. Six years and $14 billion in federal commitments later, Puerto Rico’s central grid is still in disrepair.
Puerto Ricans suffer regular outages while spending, on average, 8% of their incomes on electricity, according to the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis (IEEFA). (The average American spends 2.4% on electricity.)
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