SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico is still in the process of recovering from Hurricane Maria four years later. One of the biggest problems it faces is maintaining power through the electrical grid, which is why some Puerto Ricans are turning to solar energy to better prepare themselves for hurricanes.
“Old San Juan was founded almost 500 years ago by the Spaniards,” said Eddie Ramirez, the owner of a bed and breakfast called Casa Sol. “The culture, the art and especially the architecture is very old. All the homes are completely different event though they were built in the same century. And here in Puerto Rico, we just adapt the buildings to our technology.”
Because the community in San Juan is so old, it means it is also fragile. What’s even more delicate is Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.
“Nowadays, after Hurricane Maria, the infrastructure is very fragile,” said Homar Torres, an energy consultant and solar energy installer in Puerto Rico. “We have power outages every day, where I live we have like three to four power outages per day.”
When Hurricane Maria came through nearly five years ago, the 155mph winds destroyed homes and obliterated the electricity grid.
According to the Puerto Rican government estimated $100 billion in damage.
“Nobody had power, telecommunication towers went off,” Torres said. “It was very critical. Some places had no power for six months.”
Puerto Rico has about 1.2 million homes.
In 2017, the hurricane toppled over eighty percent of the power lines which left about 20,000 homes without power for seven months, making it the largest blackout in American history.
Because of Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans are looking into energy alternatives like solar energy.
“Part of our way of life is to always be sustainable,” Ramirez said. “We installed 30 solar panels.”
Ramirez is one of the key players in solar energy for Puerto Rico. His bed and breakfast was one of the first to have solar panels in San Juan, and it became such a vital tool.
During Hurricane Maria, him and his neighbors who have solar panels essentially created their own power grid when the power went out.
“We were able to produce electricity and provide extension chords to our neighbors,” Ramirez said. “We had guest come and neighbors come to charge everything. We stored medicine for neighbors, made ice, provided drinking water. We operated for those six or seven months to cater to the needs of our community. When people started seeing, they said, ‘Wow, it’s worth it.’”
Ramirez said more neighbors have installed solar panels since then.
Torres serves on the Board of Energy consultations dealing with the energy companies and the energy bureau advocating for more renewable energy.
“About two percent of the population uses solar energy,” Torres said. “Before Maria, it was 1%. After Maria, it increased.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in total, has awarded Puerto Rico $13 billion to cover the costs related to Hurricane Maria so far.
A study done by a nonprofit called Cambio reported investing $9.6 billion from FEMA could transform Puerto Rico’s electrical system to solar, which could generate 75% of the islands total electricity from renewables within 15 years.
“I am in this business because that’s the key to be successfully,” Torres said. “We don’t have fossil fuel, we can produce our own energy with the sun. We have more sun than other countries in the world. It makes a lot of sense.”
While the government continues trying to figure out what to do with their current electrical grid, those in Puerto Rico continue to grow their solar community.
“You produce energy right where you need it,” Torres said. “You don’t depend off towers and infrastructure. You produce energy right where you need it.”
“It just takes too long for the government to actually act,” Ramirez said. “So, you have private citizens taking control of the situation. I would say when you unite forces and unite the neighborhood and the people, nothing is impossible and everything can be overcomed.”