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.

Jonathan Marvel

Resilient Power Puerto Rico

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 grid. The model might be what New York did on Long Island after Hurricane Sandy, hardening infrastructure against storms with flood barriers and elevated platforms while upgrading traditional transmission and distribution lines. But the report also recommends switching 10 percent of the system to “microgrids,” solar panels with battery storage that could provide backup power to critical infrastructure like hospitals, as well as rural areas.

Solar can’t replace an island-wide grid; it’s not efficient enough yet, even in a place that gets as much sun as Puerto Rico. Solar-plus-batteries helps, because the sun can charge the batteries for a literal rainy day—or for nightfall. Batteries smooth out peaks and valleys in output. “To be clear, it’s still cheaper to serve most of the population with grid electricity, but for facilities where resilience is super-important, like a fire station or a wastewater treatment facility, it makes sense to price in the added cost,” says Varun Sivaram, a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Taming the Sun. “Microgrids are complex systems, but they’ve been built in many places and lots of people have expertise in building them. The primary hurdles are policy and standards.”

Marvel knows that, but he wants to expand the microgrid idea even further—beyond individual buildings to entire municipalities. He was in Puerto Rico a couple weeks ago talking to mayors, hoping to move from the scale of a single building to powering 20,000 people. “As long as we’re not crossing property lines, we can legally create these microgrids,” Marvel says. “Right now it’s all in the engineering and proposal stages. We’re looking for locations to host and opportunities to finance the locations. Because of the interest from the mayors, I don’t think there’s going to be a shortage of places.”

This is the kind of project that fewer people know how to build, but that might have a far greater impact. It’s also, perhaps not by coincidence, the kind of systems-based, sustainable, futuristic Spaceship Earth-type solution that Marvel’s Great Uncle Bucky would probably have approved of. (Putting a geodesic dome over Puerto Rico seems less feasible.)

And if his group can get that stepped-up scale of solar built, it could have a ripple effect—not just in Puerto Rico, but everywhere. “Architects love to talk about scale—the scale of a house, a city, a planet,” Marvel says. “If you can solve things in Puerto Rico, you can solve things on a larger scale as well.”

There’s already evidence of demand. Microsoft, for example, is buying 315 megawatts of solar for its cloud computing facilities in Virginia. “Solar deployed at the scale of communities is a kind goldilocks zone,” Sivaram says. Rooftop solar isn’t always economical, and vast solar installations require new substations and transmission lines, but “solar at a megawatt scale, on the order of serving hundreds of American households, that’s the right scale. But for that to happen it’s got to be integrated into the rest of the electricity grid.”

For now, though, it makes sense to focus on Puerto Rico recovery. The island has at least a few of the resources necessary for a project like this—plenty of fresh water, plenty of sunlight, plenty of labor. What it lacks, of course, is capital. Resilience Power Puerto Rico figures it’ll take $5 million to $10 million to power up a 20,000-person solar grid.

So now Marvel finds himself in a policy role, talking to mayors and potential sources of funding, negotiating property rights. He says he’s just using standard architectural problem-solving to help out his childhood home. “Architecture is a profession that sees things holistically, that sees things along the lines of systems dynamics, where everything is interrelated,” he says. “Those are tools we learn in architecture school.”

And even though the efforts to get the power back on with traditional technology seem to finally be seeing success, the clock is ticking. The 2018 hurricane season starts in June.

Powering Up

  • Overhauling Puerto Rico’s grid won’t be easy, but it’s necessary.
  • One reason an island territory needs power? To communicate with itself, and the rest of the world.
  • Hurricane Maria was a disaster with many faces, including a health crisis with dimensions still largely unknown.

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