This Brooklyn Architect wants to Rewire Puerto Rico with Solar


The sixth month anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s grinding-up of Puerto Rico brought what might feel like good news. According to AEE, the Electrical Energy Authority, almost 93 percent of Puerto Ricans—1,365,065 people—now have power. The process has been agonizing—a misguided early repair contract to the unlikely Whitefish Energy for $300 million got cancelled, and it took months for crews from better-suited firms to get started. Financial problems, logistical difficulties, and a weird reluctance on the part of the federal government to make Puerto Rico a priority all extended the timeline.

The work is far from over. Thousands of people are still without water and power, and suffering—especially in rural areas—goes on. But in the midst of that tumult and travail, some technologists see opportunities for innovation. Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure was falling apart even before the hurricane. So lots of folks are advocating solar power systems as a jump into the future. Earlier this month, the design-driven nonprofit Resilient Power Puerto Rico announced it would receive grants of $625,000, with which the group plans to construct 25 of a planned 100 small, commercial-scale solar arrays—with an eye toward revamping pieces of the island’s grid.

Resilient Power Puerto Rico is itself powered, in part, by Jonathan Marvel, an architect perhaps best known these days for beautiful hipster remodels in Brooklyn. But Marvel’s father, Thomas, was one of the islands most important architects. “I was without a lot of knowledge about solar or electrical engineering, but because of the hurricane, and being born and raised here—I have an office in San Juan as well as New York—it became a matter of pride and responsibility to try to power up Puerto Rico,” Marvel says. His pedigree goes back even further; Marvel’s great-uncle was famed designer Buckminster Fuller, of geodesic domes, Dymaxion cars, and the early sustainability philosophy of Spaceship Earth.

“We started by bringing solar generators and batteries, because the governor said we could install them without having to go through a permitting process during the relief and recovery period,” Marvel says. Instead of homes, Marvel installed solar panels at the community centers common in smaller municipalities, where people already gathered and could share the power. “If we could power up community centers, we could power up the island.”

Resilient Power Puerto Rico isn’t the only group working on solar. (Naomi Klein has a terrific article in The Intercept about this movement.) But Resilient has installed six community center arrays so far—20 panels each, with two Tesla batteries (one for backup), each capable of supplying 5 to 6 kWh. It’s not enough to run an air conditioner all day, but it’ll run water filters, pumps, and charging stations for phones and radios. “The beauty of the Powerwall, which is what we’re installing, is that it’s super-efficient. It occupies very little space, hangs on existing block wall so that there’s more space left for activities,” Marvel says.

That’s not a replacement for a traditional power grid, of course. AEE says repair crews have brought in 6,647 new transformers, 45,200 poles (with thousands more on the way), and 19,000 miles of cable to get power from generation facilities—running on coal or oil—to users. The last mile is always the hardest; Puerto Rico’s power utility Prepa had serious financial woes even before Maria, which slowed things down, and the hurricane did some of its heaviest damage in remote areas where transmission lines carried power from generating facilities to population centers.

A December report from Prepa and the New York Governor’s Office, among others, said that $17.6 billion over the next ten years could completely revamp Puerto Rico’s aged... Read the rest of the story on HERE