The community effort to bounce back from Puerto Rico’s eight-month blackout

The community effort to bounce back from Puerto Rico’s eight-month blackout
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Imagine living without electricity for 8 months. As the day turns into night, darkness overcomes the roads to your house. Hours go by, while you try to pass the time under the scant illumination of candles, gas lanterns or solar bulbs. 

Unbeknownst to you, almost 3,000 of your fellow citizens will eventually die, mostly as a result of the largest power blackout in American history.

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This was the situation faced by the residents of Toro Negro, a community in Ciales, Puerto Rico, after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, on September 20, 2017.

Toro Negro is a beautiful community in the central mountain range of Puerto Rico. Most of its residents moved there decades ago, attracted by its peaceful scenery. 

Since 2003, the community has improved the roads, gained access to waste disposal and postal services, and developed recreational facilities.

And then Maria hit.

Puerto Rico’s electric grid was already obsolete before the hurricane destroyed it. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the Island’s sole utility, filed for bankruptcy a few months prior to the Category 4 hurricane. PREPA succumbed under $9 billion in debt, and political intervention on its decision-making processes, among other factors. Several congressional committees held hearings on the dire conditions of PREPA, and its effects on disaster recovery efforts.

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria exacerbated the need for a new energy model in the U.S. territory. Driven, as always, by their profound community spirit, the residents of Toro Negro decided to look for ways to become more resilient.

In March 2018, the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, Inc. and energy nonprofit SOMOS Solar agreed to donate solar panels and battery storage to the Toro Negro community. This initiative aimed to alleviate Toro Negro’s power issues, but the people of Toro Negro had their sights on more.

Toro Negro wanted to operate their own grid, freeing themselves from the shackles of PREPA. Banking on their 15-year record of strong community leadership, the concept of “community solar” emerged as a viable alternative.

Community solar is an electric system that is owned by, multiple community members.

A recent Puerto Rico statute states that “community solar projects have a great potential to broaden the people’s access to solar energy.” On the mainland, 16 states and the District of Columbia have community solar policies in place. 

Twenty-eight homes in Toro Negro now share the benefits of solar power obtained from their roofs and other nearby premises, and the residents operate their microgrid. The residents of Toro Negro will now begin a process to establish their own rate. By generating its energy from 100 percent solar power, the project will also have a positive footprint in the environment.  

 Toro Negro will become the first fully operational community solar project in Puerto Rico, as well as the first “cooperative microgrid.”

The Toro Negro project is an example of how foundations and nonprofits can collaborate to strengthen communities by making them more resilient against future natural disasters, while achieving energy independence at the same time.

Ramón Luis Nieves is a former state senator for the District of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and chairman of the Energy and Banking, Insurance and Telecommunications committees of the Senate of Puerto Rico. Currently, Nieves is the managing member of RL Legal & Consulting Services, LLC, based in San Juan. The author advises the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, Inc. in the development of energy projects. Follow him on Twitter @ramonlusnieves