On our recent trip to Puerto Rico, the Empowered by Light team went back to Adjuntas in the south western part of the island to inspect the solar/energy storage projects we have funded since Hurricane Maria. Adjuntas is a particularly poor community in a US territory that has been crippled by corruption and debt. They’re forced by their monopolistic, bankrupt utility PREPA to pay rates for electricity that are almost double the average price on the US mainland, due in part to the fact that most of its power comes from imported fossil fuels. For areas like Hawaii that may be faintly tolerable, but for people that have very little to start with, it’s a complete non-starter. And to make things worse, they’re not only amongst the first to suffer from a natural disaster when their decrepit part of the grid goes out, they also suffer the longest – they went without power for well over six months after Maria.
While in Adjuntas we spent time with the team at Casa Pueblo who originally helped us identify and build the projects – a home for low-income elderly, a home for abused children and the Adjuntas Fire Station. In the first two examples, earthquakes and hurricanes will no longer mean that these disadvantaged community members will be in the dark and disconnected.
In the case of the fire station, critical emergency services can continue to serve the community in extended outages, and supply power to members of the community as happened earlier this month when a 6.4 earthquake knocked out power for three days.
Casa Pueblo’s team has for decades fought to improve the lot of its community, and a pillar of that campaign is to make parts of the town completely independent of the grid. Instead of remaining prone to increasing costs and grid instability, they’re raising support and funds to build a large-scale solar microgrid with storage, designed to cut power costs for up to 18,500 members of the community by at least 20% and even more importantly create resiliency when the next climate change-accelerated disaster heads their way. Empowered by Light is contributing 500 solar panels to the project, and the electric truck company Rivian is supporting with its battery technology.
Despite having seen this many times before, I was still struck by what an incredibly tough situation they’re in – like communities all over the world, they’re over a barrel. They’re hammered with energy costs that take up a disproportionate amount of their limited income, yet to survive they’ve been forced to accept not just the costs, but the hardship that comes with the grid is out for months. And yet, this community is one of the first to create a different path for themselves. Their conviction and courage to stand up, mobilize their community, say enough’s enough, and take matters into their own hands is inspiring.
Modern energy technology means that none of us should be beholden to so many utilities whose very structures and incentives are designed to put the consumer dead last, and the town of Adjuntas is leading the way. I predict that more communities in more towns, cities, countries and continents will follow their bold example.