When Barefoot College first began speaking with FEMA officials and local organizations in Puerto Rico about a plan for resilient energy, it marked the organizations 97the country of operations worldwide.
More significantly, it brought the work of Solar Mamas into a new environment: working with American citizens focused on resiliency and disaster recovery. It also brings the work of Solar Mama training to the Western Hemisphere.
In September 2017, Hurricane María, a Category 5 hurricane decimated the island of Puerto Rico. An estimated 1.5 million people lost electricity on the island, causing the largest blackout in United States history. It took 11 months to restore electricity to Puerto Rico, exposing how vulnerable the energy infrastructure is on an island that is frequently marred by natural disasters.
In March 2019, Puerto Rico’s legislature passed the Energy Public Policy Act, a trailblazing bill that is set to radically transform the energy sector of the island. In a nutshell, the goal of the bill is to propel Puerto Rico towards 100% renewable energy by 2050. In this era of climate change, the need for resilient energy is paramount. It’s not if, but when, another storm will strike the island.
To put things into perspective, only 2% of the island’s electricity generation is attributed to renewable sources. Puerto Ricans currently pay over twice as much for electricity compared to their relatives in Florida, so aside from being more resilient to disruptions than traditional energy sources, renewable energy also makes economic sense for the island. Per unit of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, is already cheaper than traditional sources such as coal, and these prices are ever-dwindling thanks to innovation.
The future of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure is decentralized, and will rely on prosumers – consumers that not only consume energy but also produce it. The onus for sustained energy access will shift from centralized coal powerplants to individual Puerto Rican households.
To meet the challenge of this transformation, Barefoot College will bring its signature Solar Mama training program to Puerto Rico. Over May and June 2019, Barefoot College will bring together 25 rural women from across the island and provide them with intensive training to become solar engineers. The women will learn how to design and deploy self-contained solar microgrids, which can power entire houses, water systems and all critical infrastructure in their communities. Upon graduating as Solar Mamas, the women will become a vital component of Puerto Rico’s renewable energy future.
While Barefoot College has historically focused on the Least Developed Countries, the program in Puerto Rico will test the efficacy of the solar training in not just electrifying households but also as a means of response during the aftermath of a natural disaster. The Puerto Rican solar mamas will not just be solar engineers but also first responders working collectively to restore the islands energy infrastructure during the next hurricane season.