Puerto Rico Fire Stations Get Solar Power Ahead Of Hurricane Season

SAN JUAN, P.R. — A nonprofit that's installing solar energy systems in some fire stations in Puerto Rico ahead of hurricane season hopes it can show distributed power is more reliable for the island. 

Moira Hanes, executive director and co-founder of the group Empowered by Light, said in May and June, they hope to have solar with battery storage operating in eight fire stations, with ten more planned by the end of the year. She said car and battery maker Tesla is working on solar for a hospital, and nonprofits want to put solar in soup kitchens, schools and community centers.

"Those solar systems are designed to withstand winds up to 180, if not more, 180 miles per hour,” Hanes said. “And the idea is then hopefully people can come in on a much, much larger scale doing it commercially."

An estimated 90 percent of the 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico lost power after Hurricane Maria. According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 4,600 people died, the largest portion because of interrupted medical care.

For the last eight months, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has mostly focused on restoring the grid that existed before Maria, though it remains fragile. 

Hanes said after the storm, Empowered by Light worked on solar-powered desalination and water supply systems. Pending fund raising, she said they'd like to convert the Emergency Operation Center to solar - a building she said shows the downside of depending on the grid in an emergency.

"Basically, the main command center, which you may recall the governor of Puerto Rico rushed to after hurricane Maria had struck the island, and the EOC actually had no power,” she said.

Defenders of more traditional power sources argue it's cheaper, though the cost of renewables has fallen enough to compete directly. PREPA's formal plans indicate the agency wants to build natural gas-fired power plants. 

Hanes said that is unwise.

"Distributed energy, renewable energy systems, are so much more resilient than the existing grid infrastructure - the same kind of centralized structure that we have in so many places,” she observed.

More information is available at EmpoweredByLight.org.