Can solar help safeguard post-hurricane Puerto Rico?


The week Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in October 2017, Mark Méndez found himself talking to a friend, Edwin Wanji, in North Seattle’s Hellbent Brewing. While disaster stories and images inundated local TV stations, Méndez knew his own father, the mayor of a Puerto Rican town of 60,000 called Aguadilla, was scrambling to find residents food and water.

With his father and other members of his family on the island, Méndez wrestled with how best to respond to a distant crisis that struck so close to home.

“I wanted to do something that was long term and sustainable,” he says. “But we’re pretty much as far away from Puerto Rico as you can be in the States.”

Most Seattle nonprofits that launched relief efforts in response to the disaster followed the nationwide inclination to address the urgent needs of the island, like sending food, water or medical-aid kits. A fundraiser hosted by Puerto Rican restaurant La Isla in Ballard raised about $40,000 to fund immediate relief.

But as Wanji told Méndez at the time, food and water couldn’t solve one issue: Puerto Rico had gone dark. Electricity on the island wouldn’t be completely restored until the following August, marking almost an entire year without easy access to lights, working refrigerators, television and pretty much any other modern convenience requiring a plug. As the founder of residential solar company Sphere Solar Energy, Wanji knew how important solar could be in creating energy stability: He’s organizing the installation of solar panels on a Haitian orphanage and has plans to launch projects in his birthplace of Kenya. He was even responsible for the solar panels gracing the roof of the very brewery they were sitting in.

Early recovery efforts focused on rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electrical system exactly as it was before. But to Wanji and Méndez, that seemed like patching up a major wound with a band-aid.

“In terms of rebuilding with a hurricane, this will happen again, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time,” Wanji says. “We have the power to demonstrate and showcase the potential of a system that can withstand some of these disasters.”

The two started talking. Soon their duo expanded into a group, as the owner of Hellbent and nine other Washingtonians with or without Puerto Rican heritage joined forces to create the nonprofit Solarize Puerto Rico. Since their first fundraiser in October 2017, they’ve raised around $20,000 from hundreds of supporters to fund what will eventually be a $60,000 solar project aimed at powering an ecology-focused school on the island.

In the process, Solarize Puerto Rico joins other nonprofits and companies like Tesla that hope to make Puerto Rico a shining example of what a solar energy overhaul could accomplish.

“It’s kind of a battle for the future,” Méndez says.

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