Nancy Wilson-Rhoades and Bev Kehoe traveled to Puerto Rico to assess appropriate sites for the Power on Puerto Rico Portable Solar Charging Stations (POP or SOS). This is a joint project of Amurtel, an international relief organization directed by Joni Zweig, and Amicus, a consortium of US solar power companies, including Aegis, owned by Nils Behn. The short-term goal is 10 trailers with 2 kilowatts of power that are loaned to communities without power. More than 100 days after Hurricane Maria, more than 50% of Puerto Rico is without power (officials say 40% but…).
Here are some initial stories.
Frederick Figueroa is descended from generations of coffee farmers in Indeiras, Maricao, in the mountains 3000 feet above Sabana Grande in southwestern Puerto Rico. He studies animal sciences at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez and on class day drives more than one hour each way on steep and winding roads. He spoke about possibly getting an apartment closer to campus but his parents are rather strict. Part of his university life includes volunteering with Instituto, a non-profit organization committed to building stronger communities. Before the Hurricane (for sure, people speak of ‘before Maria’ and ‘after…’), he focused on setting up a training/learning center in the Indieras area, but then shifted to relief work. He and other classmates visit homes to distributed water, food, clothes as well as the solar-powered flashlights that were donated by Verilux soon after Maria hit.
It is said that Indieras is the region where the last of the decimated Tainos people hid when the Spaniards went on their rampage and declared that the Taino people were no more. Later the area was recognized and named as ‘the place where the Indians live.’ Some people don’t believe the story and think they were truly exterminated while others believe that all Puerto Ricans must have a trace of Taino in them. In any case, this area is remote! Mostly Spanish is spoken (although many of the university students have a connected-via-the-internet, barely-accented fluency in English) and most are farmers or laborers.
Frederick’s home is painted bright yellow and sits on a manicured lawn at the crest of a hill. On this sunny day, it looks like a modest suburban home. But it’s been without power for more than 100 days, and counting into the unforeseeable future. When the hurricane started at 2 am on September 20 (a date and time etched into local consciousness), the wind was terrifying. His cousin Luis, a pre-med student, described hearing voices in the winds as the storm raged through the day. Both cousins emphasized that Maria, rather than discouraging them, strengthened resolve to continue their studies and realize their commitment to helping others.Frederick showed the expanse of sparsely vegetated (but greening) hillsides that were lush with coffee 4 months ago. At the home of his great uncle, people come for water from his well. This is a potential site for one of the SOS units as people come here already for help, there is a strong trust and community connection, no thought of political gain from the unit (an expressed concern), it sits next to a church, and is gated. His aunt Sylvia showed enthusiasm for this possibility. The backyard is filled with baby coffee plants and the family has a coffee drying business. Frederick said, ‘After Maria, we thought all was lost but then people started to come in with coffee to dry; it was unbelievable; it gave us all hope.” He is so enthusiastic about the SOS project and explained that “we cannot do it by ourselves.”
Manuel Toledo, is a professor of electronics at the University of Puerto Rico and his wife Angela handles several rental properties, renting mostly to students. Manuel’s father lives with them, along with 2 dogs, 2 cats and many birds in the trees. We are staying in a studio apartment that they usually rent to students. We climbed the spiral staircase to the roof terrace where Angela explained how she bolted down the solar panels before the hurricane and was surprised that they survived but the water tank went flying and had to get recaptured. She recounted how they boarded up all the windows except for a few off the protected patio so they could see what was happening but they were sorry they didn’t board those up too! The storm raged for the day and into the night, and the rain for 4 days. After the high winds stopped, they went outside to assess and repair. Their driveway was blocked by massive tree trunks so they were home for 4 days before they were able to clear. Mahesh was the only one in the house strong enough to handle the gas-fired chainsaw (the electric one was useless) and, although they had solar panels, they had no water. And it rained for 4 days so the panels were sleeping!
At the Rincon farmers market, a young couple selling tamarind juice and cocoa butter sunscreen now travel one hour to the market because they still have no power and had to move back in with one of their parents. The flashlights that Verilux donated will help when they go back to their powerless home to rebuild their business, Island Lyfe.
The stories are recited in varying voices, sometimes with drama, or with tears, alacrity, resignation or acceptance, but they are always accompanied with thoughts about the next hurricane season. There’s talk about the 6 or 8 months left to get ready. Damiana, a normally sunny and positive owner of a paddleboard rental company, spoke if there’s a next time: “PR will be done.”
Crispin, a defacto leader in an neighborhood in Anasco that flooded to the first floor from the confluence of river and ocean, said his area doesn’t need an SOS because they got power (just last week!) but reminded us that we are ‘not too late for next time.’ He gave a tour of an elementary school that closed for budgetary reasons and he is cooking up a plan for a community training and learning there and planted seeds in the raised beds in the yard. He is growing beans and spinach, and university students are building more beds. “The sun, the air, the soil,” he recites as he tenderly trims the green leaves, “this is the future of Puerto Rico.”
As of this writing we are soon off to other communities for the next few days. We will have more stories and pictures to share. We are still needing money to complete and ship the trailers and appreciate any help you can give.
Luisa Seijo Maldonado of the Instituto para el Desarrollo de las Communicades-Siemprevivas, which is handling the distribution of more than 4000 solar-powered flashlights that were donated soon after Maria hit. These flashlights are part of care packages that are distibuted to homes without power. Folks are thrilled to receive them for the present but also for ‘the next time.’
Nancy and I toured through many regions where the power is still out. There are power company ‘brigades’ from Minnesota, Alabama, Texas but even so some will be out for months to come. Raymond, a security guard in Old San Juan who lives in Corozal, said the he can see the live power but ” we just need 200 more feet of power line.” He thinks it will be soon but stated that next time he will build a cement roof over his kitchen. Even the places where the power is officially ‘on,’ it is unreliable. Even if the government or PRIPA says a town has power, it usually means just the town center. That’s like Irasville having power but Route 17 doesn’t!
Internet is sketchy. Most people are using WiFi hotspots from their phone, so I have not had alot of access to upload photos. I will go to the University of Puerto Rico and try to log on there. Here are some initial images.
Nancy Wilson Rhoades and Bev Kehoe are traveling to Puerto Rico in the next step for bringing the portable solar power charging stations to the island. We will be making blog posts as we travel through the island. January 17 is our travel day!
In response to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico, a group of U.S. solar companies and a global disaster relief agency are mobilizing to bring portable emergency power trailers to remote areas of the unincorporated U.S. territory.
Roughly 40% of Puerto Rico is still without power and clean drinking water after the catastrophic Hurricane Maria tore across the island in September. Hundreds of thousands of island residents are risking serious illness daily as they are forced to collect water from streams and other untreated water sources that are known to be contaminated. Without access to power to charge cell phones or computers and roads destroyed or blocked by fallen trees, many island residents are isolated and unable to get information on aid opportunities.
Amurtel and Amicus, a purchasing cooperative of about 50 American solar companies, have created a partnership to bring emergency solar power and drinking water systems to those struggling to recover from the hurricane. The effort, called Power On Puerto Rico, is enlisting volunteers from Amicus member-companies to design and build Solar Outreach Systems (SOS) that will be delivered to the areas of greatest need identified by Amurtel staff on the ground in Puerto Rico.
Located close to the equator where solar energy is most abundant, Puerto Rico is an ideal geography for harnessing solar energy. The Solar Outreach Systems, which are portable community-based communication, water purification and emergency power hubs, will immediately assist on-the-ground relief efforts.
The SOS units will be deployed by the Aireko Foundation, an offshoot of Aireko Energy Solutions, which is a Puerto Rico-based member of Amicus. These units will be loaned to the communities for the duration of their need and then be redeployed to other disaster areas around the globe as needs and events dictate.
“The aftermath of Hurricane Maria has been as difficult and often even harder than surviving the storm itself, especially for those communities in the interior of the island. After more than two months, reestablishment of electric power for those communities is still unknown, and the quality of water is not the best – for those communities that are lucky enough to have this service, which are very few. Sadly, those communities are far from returning to their normal lives,” said Hector Rivera Russe of Aireko Energy Solutions. “I’m deeply touched by how my Amicus partners, alongside Amurtel, have jumped without hesitation, to putting their time, resources and effort to give relief to my people in Puerto Rico. I will always be thankful to them,” said Russe.
The first three SOS units are being manufactured in the North Andover, MA warehouse of ReVision Energy, a founding member of Amicus recently named the #1 Rooftop Solar Installer in New England by Solar Power Industry magazine. “We are chomping at the bit to build these portable emergency power units,” said Phil Coupe, a co-founder of ReVision Energy. “The great news is that we already have more than enough volunteers to build the units once we obtain all the necessary components.”
Each SOS is comprised of an enclosed trailer with exterior solar panels and power outlets, along with batteries and a water purification system inside the trailer. Once parked in a sunny location, the exterior solar panels are deployed and switched on to provide 300-400 watts of emergency power while simultaneously purifying up to 600 gallons of clean potable water a day. Each SOS unit can charge up to 10 phones and five laptops simultaneously. Two large outdoor floodlights affixed to the roof of the SOS units will enable community members to have light at night.
The first 10 Puerto Rican communities that will receive SOSs have already been identified, and are anxiously awaiting their units. Each community will be responsible for the maintenance and security of their unit, but there will be no cost associated with the use.
Power On Puerto Rico is a powerful way that individuals can help fellow Americans in crisis. Although all of the SOS design work, and many of the components, have been donated, Amurtel and Amicus need additional funds to finish manufacturing the SOS units and to deliver them. The estimated cost of each SOS unit is $15,000 to purchase the trailer base, water purification system, charging outlets, lights and batteries.
How can you help? Tax deductible donations of materials, services and cash contributions are being coordinated through our Donation page here.
Below is a photo of the first three enclosed trailers that will be converted into Solar Outreach Systems once all materials arrive at ReVision Energy’s decarbonization facility in North Andover, MA:
Vermont-based Verilux, the premier creator of full-spectrum lighting, recently sent 4230 (yes, four thousand!) solar-power flashlights to Puerto Rico as part of Amurtel’s relief efforts. Here is a link to their site that shows how cool this light is! Verilux ReadyLight Solar Power Rechargeable Flashlight
Months after Hurricane Maria, many communities are still without power, and Verliux is making a difference…4,230 lights at a time! This is the kind of support that keeps Amurtel going.