Photo: Alejandro Melendez Gonzalez
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico and the surrounding region, the media reported that 90 percent of people on the island were still without power and over half had no access to clean drinking water. Relief efforts were focused on bringing diesel generators to the island, but we knew there was a better way to quickly and reliably restore power: solar technology.
Empowered by Light, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to clean, renewable energy, reached out to its partners – leading residential solar company Sunrun, renewable-energy-focused non-profit Givepower, and Las Vegas fire department captain Richard Birt – to gather the necessary resources to bring reliable power and water to the island. In record time, we packed a cargo plane with two solar plus storage systems and four water desalination systems and headed to Puerto Rico.
Through the advice of Captain Birt, who had just lived through a tragedy himself during the deadly Las Vegas shooting, we collaborated with Puerto Rico’s fire department to cut through the red-tape and chaos on the ground, and safely and rapidly install solar systems where they were needed most.
Upon arrival, we saw the extent to which the island was ill-prepared for this type of natural disaster. Hurricane Maria destroyed the entire power grid on the island, as well as diesel generators that were the only source of backup power for emergency services, like the Barrio Obrero fire station. When their generator wasn’t working, firefighters had no power, which meant they couldn’t receive 911 calls. And without access to clean water, many people on the island of Puerto Rico, as well as the neighboring island of Culebra, resorted to drinking contaminated river and runoff water.
But less than 48 hours after our team of seven landed, and with help from San Juan Fire Chief Alberto Cruz and his team, we had installed and were running solar systems on two fire stations. These systems replaced the defunct generators and are now powering the stations’ communications room 24/7, so firefighters can effectively respond to emergencies.
Empowered by Light and our partners also delivered three desalination systems to a relatively poor and heavily-damaged area of the island and flew the fourth system to the neighboring island of Culebra on which 30,000 people have been living without regular access to drinking water since the hurricane. These systems use solar energy to convert seawater into clean, safe drinking water – a critical need for Culebra and Puerto Rico residents. Each water system turns 250 gallons of ocean water into 250 gallons of clean drinking water each day, providing enough clean water for up to 2,000 people a day.
We were devastated to see such suffering on the island, and frustrated that relief efforts were focused on diesel when we knew – and demonstrated – we could quickly deliver solar power and water systems that could provide real and immediate relief. That’s why we’re hard at work raising funds to return to Puerto Rico and install solar systems at even more fire stations. Please watch the video below and visit our website to learn more about this effort.
Our hope is that media attention of our efforts to restore power and clean water using solar will demonstrate that renewable energy technologies should be an integral part of any recovery plan – not just for Puerto Rico, but for communities around the world. Solar can be quickly deployed, and is a more resilient alternative to diesel. Extreme weather events are only going to become more common, and we believe any area prone to them should incorporate renewable energy solutions.
Empowered by Light is a 501©3 non-profit that has developed solar projects in seven countries, helping school-age children study better and longer, and powering conservation centers, ranger stations and indigenous communities in ecologically sensitive areas of the world. For more information about Empowered by Light, visit https://www.empoweredbylight.org/