Six years after Hurricane María underscored Puerto Rico’s urgent need for a resilient power supply, a small town in the island’s mountainous interior will switch on its first community-owned solar microgrid, weeks ahead of peak storm season.
Composed of two half-megawatt battery storage systems connected to 700 solar panels, the US$2-million microgrid marks another essential step in Puerto Rico’s accelerating grassroots effort to break the shackles of fossil fuel serfdom via La Insurrección Energética, or Energy Insurrection, reports Next City.
Puerto Rico has endured an unreliable grid for decades, but in 2017 Hurricane María really laid bare the consequences of weak infrastructure for 18,000 residents in the mountain town of Adjuntas.
“After María, we saw the vulnerability and the necessity to have an electric system that truly works,” local pizzeria owner Gustavo Irizarry told Next City. “To have better, alternative power, to be able to live.”
In the six months that Puerto Rico’s central grid remained down after María, Irizarry spent US$15,000 on diesel for his generator. Even when the grid was repaired, the cost of energy kept rising, until nearly 30% of Irizarry’s operating costs went toward electricity bills.
Desperate to solve the problem, Irizarry and 13 other merchants turned to their local environmental non-profit Casa Pueblo for help.
Founded in 1980 and already much involved in advancing La Insurrección Energética, Casa Pueblo had reserved its place in the hearts of Adjunteños during the hurricane recovery. Its off-grid solar system proved a life-sustaining refuge for locals desperate to keep essential medicines cold, dialysis machines running, and phones charged.
Casa Pueblo has long “relied on deep roots in the community to create local buy-in and lead an equitable transition to energy security,” writes Next City. Equity has been at the heart of everything Casa Pueblo has done, from installing its first solar panels 43 years ago, to helping locals cope with María’s devastation.
“Since distributing 14,000 solar lamps after María, Casa Pueblo has built a public solar park and installed more than 350 solar systems on homes and essential service buildings,” New City says.
These systems have lessened energy poverty, with participating households saving an average of US$40 per month on their energy bills. They have also increased energy security, especially in moments of crisis, like when the lights stayed on through Hurricane Fiona last September.
Equity was top of mind for Casa Pueblo’s late co-founder Tinti Deyá Diaz, as the idea for a downtown microgrid began to take shape in 2019. Diaz “wasn’t totally onboard,” writes Next City, fearing that the system would clearly benefit wealthy Adjunteños but might not serve poorer ones.
To ensure that the microgrid’s generation of energy, and energy wealth, is shared, Irizarry and his fellow merchants—including a pharmacist, a baker, and the owner of the local hardware store— formed the non-profit Asociación Comunitaria de Energía Solar Adjuntas Inc. (Community Solar Energy Association of Adjuntas or ACESA), essentially operating as an independent utility.
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