A solar microgrid changes the lives of Puerto Ricans struggling without power and water

May 6, 2022
Before a solar microgrid was installed, residents of La Montana could only get water by driving a truck once a month down the mountain to another town where they could fill up tanks.

It’s unusual for solar microgrids to spark tears of happiness. But that’s what happened in a small mountain community in Puerto Rico.

Even before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the community of La Montana — located in the mountains within the town of Yauco — didn’t have grid power because of its remote location and rough terrain. And after the region was hit by an earthquake, the local residents lost their well so were left without power and water.

To get water, residents once a week drove a water truck down the mountain to Yauco, filled up water tanks and drove back uphill to La Montana, said Alexander Rodríguez Hernández, executive director of the nonprofit organization Por los Nuestros, which is based in Puerto Rico and focuses on renewable energy and health on the island. The truck delivered water to each household.

Beginning in April 2021, Por los Nuestros worked to drill a new well in the community and install a solar microgrid to pump water from the well to the households. The microgrid was deployed in February.

“Residents cried when they first saw the water from the well,” said Rodríguez Hernández. “They had been using bottled water for cooking. Now they have more than enough water.”

Solar microgrids for 25 communities

Led by Rodríguez Hernández, Por los Nuestros has installed solar microgrids to pump water from new wells in 25 communities located in the mountains. The microgrids consist of solar, batteries – most from Blue Planet Energy – and diesel backup generators.

In Puerto Rico, the towns are located at sea level, in general, but many smaller communities — each with 10 to 200 households — are higher in the mountains.

Because of the topography, these smaller communities often don’t receive water from the government’s main utility, said Rodriguez Hernández. They need to drill wells to gain access to water, and they need power to pump water out of the wells to households.

Before Hurricane Maria struck the island, wiping out the electrical grid, most of the communities had grid power. Now, many communities have wells but no grid power although some are powered by diesel generators supplied by the government.

To help bring water to these communities, Por los Nuestros began deploying the solar microgrids with diesel backup. The largest system has 26 KW of solar, with 75 kWh of batteries and 40-kW backup generators. The solar microgrids can isolate from the grid, said Rodríguez Hernández.

Especially in the center of the island, the batteries are needed because clouds form daily in the afternoon, blocking solar radiation. Without the batteries, backup diesel generators would be used more often.

The nonprofit organization acquired the microgrid equipment with funding from its donors — US-based Direct Relief, an NGO, and AbbVie, a pharmaceutical company. Por los Nuestros received $2.3 million in funding, which came from both organizations, said Rodríguez Hernández.

Por los Nuestros also participated in a project that involved Blue Planet Energy, Microsoft Airband and New Sun Road in the rural communities of Caguas, Cidra and Cayey.  The partners upgraded the existing solar water pumping stations and created microgrids with battery storage, WiFi and remote monitoring and control. The goal was to provide uninterrupted access to essential services, including energy, water and information. “It’s not just that you need to improve service and electricity and water to these communities, but they have to function through strong shocks,” said Jalel Sager, CEO of New Sun Road.

The internet access also boosts educational and business opportunities for residents of the communities.

In Caguas, the residents also implemented a water conservation program. They now have more than enough water and want to create an ice company to sell ice to the community, said Rodríguez Hernández.

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Meanwhile, Rodríguez Hernández is working to teach local people about the benefits of clean water and renewable energy. Por los Nuestros is now looking for a $1.5 million grant for eight new projects that would serve 1,600 families. Part of the work will involve helping residents understand the importance of maintaining the solar microgrids and wells.

His organization provides internet and maintenance for the first year, then, after the first year, the communities are in charge of maintenance. The nonprofit offers to provide trained engineers for about $70 per month.

Cost savings

That’s not much money, given that the solar microgrids save the bigger communities $600 to $700 per month in energy costs, said Rodríguez Hernández.

An environmental chemist who began the microgrid projects working as a volunteer while studying for his Ph.D., Rodriguez Hernández next wants to teach kids about the benefits of renewable energy.

“We can change future generations by teaching them that solar and renewables are the future,” Rodriguez Hernández said. Local kids got to see firsthand the benefits of the solar microgrids when there was a power outage about two weeks ago that left many towns and communities without power for two or three days. But with the solar microgrids powering the water pumps, the residents had water.

“People didn’t have water before when there was a power outage. Now they can see they don’t have power but can use the water. That puts in context the importance of having renewable energy for these kids,” he said.

Even though Rodríguez Hernández works long hours, often responding to calls about power outages late at night from many communities at once, he said he’s not the hero in these small communities.

“These people are the heroes,” he said. “When Hurricane Maria hit and knocked down poles, the people were putting up the electric poles themselves. These people are doers. It’s amazing that they have this kind of empowerment.”

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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