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Puerto Rico’s solar users are still among fortunate few’ with power

Most Puerto Ricans remain in the dark after Hurricane Fiona, thanks to a grid plagued by problems. Owners of solar-plus-battery systems are faring better.

Two men in bright safety clothing remove  debris from a rooftop that also has solar panels
Removing debris from a solar-equipped rooftop in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2022 (Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)
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Six days after Hurricane Fiona barreled over Puerto Rico, nearly 60 percent of the U.S. territory is still without power, and nearly a third of households lack running water, according to official data. On Friday, the U.S. National Guard began distributing emergency supplies of diesel after hospitals and supermarkets ran out of fuel for backup generators. Mudslides and heaps of debris continue to complicate recovery efforts.

Fiona — which arrived just days before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria — brought renewed attention to Puerto Rico’s crumbling grid and the failure of government agencies and utility companies to build a more resilient electricity system. Energy experts and community organizers have urged officials for years not to build back the existing fossil-fuel-powered grid and invest instead in rooftop solar arrays, battery storage systems and microgrids to prevent more sweeping blackouts.

That investment has yet to happen, but in the meantime, business owners, residents and nonprofits are leading their own grassroots solar movement in Puerto Rico. 

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Tens of thousands of rooftop solar systems with batteries have been installed since 2017 when Maria all but destroyed the island’s electric grid and left people without power for weeks, months, and even more than a year in some places. 

This week, those rooftop solar systems were put to the test for the first time as Fiona brought Category 1 winds and catastrophic flooding to the island of 3.2 million people.

a nighttime satellite picture showing puerto rico with large swaths of lights
Puerto Rico in the early morning hours of June 29, 2022, three months before Hurricane Fiona (NASA Earth Observatory)
A nighttime satellite picture of puerto rico showing fewer lights than the pre-storm photo
Puerto Rico in the early morning hours of September 22, 2022, four days after Hurricane Fiona made landfall (NASA Earth Observatory)

Ruth Santiago, an environmental attorney, is among the fortunate few” that still have power thanks to her solar-plus-battery system. It’s a proof of concept” that the system works during disasters, she said on a September 20 press call, two days after Fiona made landfall.

Santiago lives in the southern coastal city of Guayama, where a flooded river destroyed a bridge and houses and where many utility customers are still without electricity. She criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for failing to invest in distributed renewable-energy-powered systems that could benefit the wider population — not just people who, like Santiago, can afford to install their own solar panels and batteries at home. 

According to recent reports, federal recovery dollars haven’t gone far in general. Of the $9.5 billion allocated for grid repairs after Maria, only about $40 million has been disbursed, a FEMA administrator told Bloomberg.

It’s very frustrating to see that millions of people are without power unnecessarily,” Santiago said. 

Some Puerto Ricans with rooftop solar did experience minor glitches this past week, an inevitable part of adopting new technology. Karla Zambrana, the general manager in Puerto Rico for Sunnova Energy, said that the ongoing power outage offered important lessons on how to manage the equipment in challenging circumstances. 

During and immediately after Fiona, heavy rain and dense clouds engulfed Puerto Rico for days. That reduced the amount of sunlight beaming down on solar panels, in turn limiting the amount of energy stored in batteries. Some households depleted their batteries overnight and used up the critical charge” level needed to get the solar-panel system working again once the sunlight returned. Sunnova sent crews of technicians out to essentially reboot customers’ inverters using a high-capacity portable battery so they could start harnessing and storing solar energy.

We have to better educate customers on how to maximize the usage of the battery and how to become more efficient when it comes to energy management,” Zambrana said by phone from the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo. That’s part of the learning curve.”

A worker wearing a hard hat repairs a residential battery unit
A Sunnova technician in Puerto Rico works on a Tesla Powerwall battery in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. (Sunnova)

Still, those households represent a fraction of Sunnova’s 30,000 customers in Puerto Rico. Around 97 percent of customers’ batteries had a positive, stable charge as of Thursday, allowing them to continue powering refrigerators, cellphones, vital medical equipment and other essential devices that use electricity. She said she wasn’t aware of any solar panels or batteries being damaged by the hurricane or subsequent flooding.

Having a backup solution has really become a need for Puerto Ricans — something we didn’t have before Hurricane Maria,” Zambrana said.

Another solar developer, Sunrun, said its battery fleet in Puerto Rico had provided more than 15,000 hours of backup power to thousands of customers as of September 20.

The data is still coming in, but a significant portion of our customers have seen over 40 hours of backup power,” said Chris Rauscher, Sunrun’s senior director of market development. That figure suggests customers have been able to power through the prolonged outages for several days, with solar recharging their batteries during the daytime,” he added.

Despite the pockets of progress, the struggle to restore power to all of Puerto Rico is drawing scrutiny from local leaders and state officials. 

Earlier this week, New York Attorney General Letitia James urged federal authorities to investigate the failures” of Luma Energy, the private consortium that operates the grid’s transmission and distribution system. Casa Pueblo, a community organization in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) calling for channeling federal recovery funding to community-based organizations to build a decentralized and renewable electric system.”

We urge the U.S. Congress to avoid repeating its mistakes from the previous five years,” Casa Pueblo says in the letter.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.