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Solar is lifeline in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona knocks out power

New rooftop solar projects in Puerto Rico are being put to the test by the severe storm, which hit the U.S. territory nearly five years after Hurricane Maria.

A gloomy portrait of hotels during a blackout with a tropical leaf frond in the foreground
The Condado tourist zone in San Juan, Puerto Rico was still without power on Monday, September 19. (Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)
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Just two days before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans received a brutal reminder of how vulnerable the island’s central electricity system remains. On Sunday, Hurricane Fiona slammed into the U.S. territory, bringing feet of rain and catastrophic flooding. All of the nearly 1.5 million utility customers initially lost power.

In a moment that was a bit too on the nose, Pedro Pierluisi, the governor of Puerto Rico, was briefing residents just ahead of Fiona’s landfall when the power suddenly went out in the conference room. Although service has since been restored to some customers and critical facilities like hospitals, it may take several days to fully restore power due to the magnitude and extent” of the blackout, said Luma Energy, which operates the island transmission and distribution system.

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Fiona is one of the most significant storms to hit Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017, mowing down the island’s aging electrical infrastructure. Persistent power outages and damaging voltage surges have plagued the island since then, and the government’s efforts to rebuild a sturdy grid powered by renewable energy have moved slowly — and have stalled at times as the government pursues the buildout of more fossil fuel infrastructure.

A map of puerto rico's power outages showing 1.3 million residents still without power monday morning
A screenshot of the website poweroutage.us, which tracks power interruptions, shows more than 1.3 million utility customers without power on the morning of September 19. (Poweroutage.us)

Many residents in turn have sought to improve their own energy resilience. Canary Media visited the island in May to learn how homeowners, community leaders and energy experts are driving a grassroots boom in rooftop solar projects. Roughly 50,000 rooftop solar arrays have been installed across the island, the vast majority of which are hooked to battery backup systems. A year before Maria, only about 5,000 solar systems were in place, and few of them had batteries. Now Fiona is putting these recently installed systems to the test.

In Adjuntas, a tranquil town that sits high in Puerto Rico’s central mountain range, Casa Pueblo is spearheading initiatives to install solar panels and batteries on local businesses and the homes of lower-income and medically vulnerable people. During Fiona, the organization posted updates on Twitter showing how some of those systems were able to continue producing and storing solar energy after the grid went down, including at Casa Pueblo’s headquarters near the town center and at the house of an elderly person who needs electricity to survive.” 

In one tweet, the group highlighted a home in the countryside where a bedridden person lives with their caregivers. They don’t have energy from [grid operator] Luma, but they do have energy — even in the middle of a storm, because they continue generating a little [solar energy], they’ve adjusted their consumption and they have a backup battery.”

This should be a reality for everyone, especially people who have relatives with chronic health conditions,” Casa Pueblo said on Twitter on Sunday, as rivers swollen with rain rushed violently through Adjuntas. 

Down the mountains, in the coastal city of Guánica, the local fire station managed to keep its lights and critical communications systems running during the storm thanks to a system of 52 solar panels and four Tesla Powerwall batteries. Firefighters serve the municipality of some 16,000 people and also help far-flung units in remote towns connect with larger urban stations with more trucks and firefighters.

A man stands near a rooftop solar array with farmland and rolling hills in the background
Sergeant Luis Saez, shown in May, stands atop a solar-panel-covered fire station in Guánica, Puerto Rico. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

Sergeant Luis Saez said on Monday via text message that the Guánica fire department had been able to receive four emergency calls as Fiona lashed the island’s southern coast. During previous events such as Hurricane Maria and a 2020 earthquake — before the fire station had its solar-plus-battery system — firefighters were unable to receive calls over the radio during outages and instead had to rely on people yelling for help.

The solar system is working beautifully!” Saez said while responding to storm-related damages, adding that all of the local rivers flooded and roads were clogged with trees and debris. We did not lose power all throughout the hurricane.”

The latest disaster illuminates both how much progress Puerto Ricans have made toward energy resilience — and how far the island still has to go. While the pockets of light coming from solar-powered homes are a promising development, the reality remains that as of Monday morning, some 1.3 million utility customers are still without grid electricity, and nearly 780,000 households lack potable water. In order for more residents to access renewable energy, experts say the government and state-run utility will need to invest more and make regulatory changes — including by approving virtual power plants that tap individual systems to benefit the broader grid.

As Fiona moves west and off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, heavy rains in Puerto Rico are expected to continue producing life-threatening and catastrophic flooding with mudslides and landslides” across the island through Monday night, according to the National Weather Service.

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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.