By Daniella Cheslow
Early last month, Puerto Rican solar power executive Alejandro Uriarte gave a tour of the downtown office of his company, New Energy. It’s on a busy San Juan road above a Denny’s restaurant. Uriarte reached a yellow demonstration wall mounted with the components of a solar power system. A solar panel received energy, transmitted it to inverters, passed it through an energy meter and eventually, into the island’s electric grid. “We need to update it now with batteries,” Uriarte said. Hurricane Maria has transformed the business model for New Energy and other solar companies selling in Puerto Rico. The storm hit in late September and devastated the old grid. Repairing it will take months. Prior to the hurricane, only about 2% of the island’s energy came from renewables. Uriarte focused on solar panels and sold five batteries a month. In October, he sold 200 batteries, and sales have remained strong in November and December.
“Before Maria, the main reason why people would get solar was to save on electricity cost,” he said. “Now, the saving is not as important as having electricity.” To keep up with demand, Uriarte hired three dozen new workers.
Puerto Rico is in some ways perfectly positioned to pivot to solar energy. The sun shines nearly every day, the old grid is shredded, and the island is small – as the San Juan mayor likes to point out, only 100 miles by 35 miles. This was the logic underlying a blueprint for rebuilding the territory’s power system, which the governors of Puerto Rico and New York announced late last year. They called for integrating renewable energy and strengthening the grid, at a cost of $17.6 billion, to be provided by the federal government. But that money has not appeared. Instead, federal emergency funding covers the slow reconstruction of the old electric network. The Puerto Rican government’s $73 billion debt prevents it from making bold investments. So leadership on solar has fallen to private companies and philanthropists who hope to catalyze momentum for a larger push.
New Energy is one of several companies selling energy storage on the island. Houston-based Sunnova has an office in San Juan. Local manager Karla Zambrana says she, too, has seen a shift among her 10,000 customers in Puerto Rico.
“Every single customer of ours is asking to have a battery installed on their house,” she says.
A monumental rebuild
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, is headquartered in a glass-encased building on Juan Ponce de Leon Avenue, named for the Spanish colonist who became Puerto Rico’s first governor. In early December no traffic lights worked on the avenue, and a generator thrummed in an alleyway across the street from the utility. Meanwhile, the front doors of PREPA were wide open and air conditioning blasted out.
“I guess I hadn’t really thought of that,” said Colonel John Lloyd, who works out of this building as the commander of power restoration in Puerto Rico for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lloyd said there are about 3,500 workers on the repair job daily, a figure that includes his personnel, PREPA, and electricians from New York and other states. PREPA did not respond to a request for an interview.
Lloyd said the challenge of restoring the grid was not workers, but rather the scope of the assignment. Every pole and truck has to be shipped to the island. Transmission lines run from power plants in the south over rugged, thickly forested mountains to cities in the north.
“Even before the storms a lot of the infrastructure in Puerto Rico was degraded,” Lloyd added. “Their power plants on average are about 44 years old, compared to plants on the mainland or other similar islands, where it’s about 18 years old.”
Access roads weren’t maintained and PREPA has incomplete records of its customers. Even before the storm, blackouts were frequent and electricity was expensive. Since Hurricane Maria, electricity has been restored to about 55% of customers who could receive power. Lloyd ballparked that most of the work would be done by late February, with remote areas taking longer.
Lloyd said other government agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) were looking into solutions like microgrids, but he said his mission assignment was “temporary emergency repairs to restore the grid back to pre-storm conditions.”
“Right now it’s all about getting lights back on for people who have been without power for over 80 days,” he added.
Taking back control
The outage has changed the math for Puerto Rican consumers. Rosa Lopez and Jose Quiñones are paying down a loan they took out two years ago to tile their roof in solar panels in Guaynabo. The San Juan suburb is where President Donald Trump notoriously visited after the storm and threw paper towels into a crowd. Power was out in the suburb until late December. Without a battery, the panels atop their one-story home provided almost no energy, and so the couple spent $400 a week on fuel for their generator. Eventually, they bit the bullet and bought a Tesla Powerwall from Uriarte for nearly $10,000. A second one was en route. Lopez said it took her time to agree to the price tag.
“’We thought, oh maybe in a couple days we will have energy, it’s a lot of money, we can find another option,” she said. “But then time [made] us realize it was not like that. We started to calculate the money to use the generator and everything [made] us realize that we need to make this investment.”
Few customers on the U.S. mainland have the same need for energy as Puerto Ricans, said Blake Richetta, who directs the U.S. operation for German solar battery company sonnen. He says most of his American customers are “Prepper Pete and Sunny Sue.”
Richetta spoke in early December as he walked along the cobbled streets of Old San Juan. It was his second visit to Puerto Rico in as many months. On the last visit, he said he could smell fuel in the ocean water, spillover from the thousands of generators that are filling in for the broken grid.
He said Hurricane Maria spurred his company to start the sonnen Foundation for Energy Security. The firm had donated eight microgrids to Puerto Rican projects, with seven more planned. Rival firm Tesla has powered a children’s hospital in San Juan with solar panels and batteries. In early December, Tesla also announced six new projects that would use energy storage to provide stable electricity to the islands Vieques and Culebra.
“Not only are we trying to bring energy security through our charity donations,” says sonnen’s Richetta, “but we’re also trying to build an entirely new electricity grid structure that is decentralized, digitalized, and decarbonized here in Puerto Rico.”
As a start, Richetta hopes to create a humanitarian network of some 200 microgrids so that communities could do laundry, charge mobile devices and get medical care in an emergency. Eventually, he envisions linking together thousands of microgrids into the grid and each other to “form a hive,” stabilize the grid and share energy. He called on the U.S. government “to step up in an incredibly big way” to support such an effort with legislation and funding.
For now, sonnen is growing in Puerto Rico thanks to customer demand. Richetta said sonnen has sold more than 200 batteries on the island since the storm, “which is really big business for us.”
He hopes to grow the private customer base via a law that would require solar batteries and storage to be built into all new construction in Puerto Rico. In addition, he is trying to start a solar community of some 2,000 homes that would all have interconnected batteries and solar panels.
Uriarte, too, said he is trying to build a microgrid community, with a solar farm generating power for some 3,000 houses.
A solar showcase
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló said he’s eager to work with private solar companies.
“We would like them to see Puerto Rico not only as a showcase of their technology, but also as a place where we have the wherewithal – the human capital to be a great manufacturing facility that can export all throughout the Americas,” Rosselló said in an interview.
He spoke in early December, days before Congress passed a tax overhaul that will impose a tax on U.S. companies with factories in Puerto Rico on profits they make from intellectual property.
“It’s disastrous and devastating,” he said of the plan. “We are certainly going to have to revise our fiscal plan.”
Rosselló said he is trying to promote solar energy without help from Washington. He said he signed executive orders to facilitate the installation of solar and battery storage, and his economic advisers met with Richetta. He added that a FEMA program to fund a temporary shelter may provide some space for rebuilding hurricane-damaged homes with renewable electricity.
Rosselló acknowledged that PREPA needed reform. The head of the utility resigned in November amid questions over a $300 million contract he awarded to Whitefish Energy, an obscure two-person firm from Montana.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said she too hoped to lure in private capital. Upon hearing of Richetta, she said: “Tell him to call me.”
Like Rosselló, Yulin Cruz has presided over donations from outsiders. In November, titans from the solar industry announced a joint project called Solar Saves Lives that would bring electricity to two San Juan markets by January and ten medical clinics by June. Ian Munn, Operations Coordinator for The Solar Foundation that organized the effort, says the scale of the projects in Puerto Rico is a step up.
“This is a new sector,” Munn said.
A shred of normalcy
Several companies have approached Puerto Rico as a laboratory for their ideas. The hurricane landed in Puerto Rico in the area of Humacao in the island’s east. Residents there lost power and mobility as verdant tall trees fell across narrow roads. Three months after the storm the roads have been cleared, but electric cables still dangle from listing poles along the asphalt. In mid-December electric workers labored to patch up the grid.
Christine Nieves is newly independent from that grid. She started a community kitchen in the village of Mariana two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit.
At first, she used a donated generator to cook and store food like rice and beans that locals brought from their homes. Then, she says, sonnen executives contacted her and offered to donate a solar battery. Local company Pura Energia donated panels.
Solar energy “has transformed me,” she says. Now she hopes to find a way to provide affordable home solar installations for her neighbors. She plans to reach out to foundations and the private sector.
“They need to be thinking about projects that maybe don’t have the infrastructure they’re used to – the financial and legal infrastructure – if they really want to help,” she says. “If not, it’s just vanity metrics.”
In the meantime, the kitchen has become a hub for locals, volunteers and companies donating small solar products. When I visited, a volunteer pulled a slender loaf of sweet pumpkin bread out of what looked like a rolling pin tucked into a metal cylinder. It is a solar oven made by GoSun, and it retails for nearly $300. He said the cost was probably not worth the benefit.
Donated solar lanterns from the Little Sun and Luci companies were more popular, as were solar radios, Nieves said. Wildlife student Katherine Colon, 20, collected a donated lamp and looked forward to studying at night, without the use of a flashlight.
For those without the money to buy a solar PV array, solar has at least provided some of the small flourishes of normal life.
David Matos is an agriculture extension worker at the University of Puerto Rico. Like many on the island, ahead of Christmas he still used a generator. But his sister sent him solar-powered Christmas lights from the mainland. Matos said the lights gave him a bit of power – and a sliver of hope.