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Bringing solar + storage, new capital to post-Maria Puerto Rico

Environment, Social Investment Practice

One month after the devastating Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, roughly 90 percent of the island’s population still lacked reliable access to electricity, and half of its residents lacked reliable access to drinking water. It likely will be many months before services are restored across the island.

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Considering those facts, we on Kresge’s Social Investment Team joined forces with the foundation’s Environment Program last month and recommended a $100,000 grant to Empowered by Light (EBL), a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit with a mission to deploy solar energy projects in vulnerable communities across the globe.

This grant will serve dual purposes for us. The first and most important is seeing the grant dollars provide round-the-clock renewable energy and clean drinking water to affected communities in Puerto Rico.

But we also hope to accrue learnings that support the Social Investment and Environment teams’ yearlong investigation to determine whether there is an opportunity to advance the adoption of solar + storage systems using non-grant forms of capital. Our hypothesis is that the strategic use of philanthropic investment could more quickly bring this emergent technology to under-resourced communities (and if you are unfamiliar with this technology or how investment might be deployed, please see this study we published earlier this year).

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Workers install new solar panels on a building in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Courtesy of Empowered by Light

One of the barriers has been the lack of a visible and ready pipeline of opportunities. Given the current and urgent effort to rebuild Puerto Rico’s energy system, we believe this small grant may provide a critical opportunity to explore how social investment could speed the adoption of a new and more resilient energy future for Puerto Rico and other vulnerable communities.

We identified EBL as a partner because it of its growing body of work with solar manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, and local professionals on installing resilient power and water systems at Puerto Rico’s 96 fire stations. Each 6.6-kilowatt system enables a fire station to perform critical tasks and to serve as a center of connection and communication for its community.

Each water desalination and purification system supplies 250 gallons of water each day — enough to provide drinking water to 500 people. In addition to meeting immediate needs, these installations will demonstrate the viability of clean, renewable, and resilient power systems, which have applicability and value beyond emergency response and beyond Puerto Rico.

Once the island’s electricity grid is restored, these systems will be integrated with that grid and will continue to serve as backup during future power outages, including those that will inevitably result from future extreme storms (the systems are designed to withstand wind speeds of more than 150 miles per hour). They will also provide potable water, help to stabilize the electricity grid, and improve air quality and public health.

“We are incubating the energy future in Puerto Rico,” said Marco Krapels, co-founder of EBL.

EBL has strong relationships with solar companies, solar developers, and other nonprofits focused on renewable energy and is partnering with the Puerto Rico Fire Department to manage local logistics and navigate bureaucracy, enabling it to work safely and efficiently amidst the continuing chaos on the ground.

To date, EBL and its partners have distributed five systems, including one to the nearby island of Culebra. The plan is to complete two additional systems by the end of November and two or three more each week through the end of the year, if funding allows. EBL works with San Juan Fire Chief Alberto Cruz and other local partners to prioritize fire stations for early installations.

Funding from Kresge will enable EBL to deploy resilient power and water systems on at least three fire stations in Puerto Rico. The resulting clean energy and water will have significant public health and safety benefits for the communities surrounding these stations.

More broadly, this project will highlight the importance of ensuring access to electricity during grid outages and demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of resilient power and water systems.  While this grant provides critical emergency response to the people of Puerto Rico, it also is deeply aligned with the Environment Program’s interest in advancing the deployment of resilient power systems in low-income communities as part of its larger commitment to helping U.S. cities implement comprehensive climate resilience approaches grounded in equity.

This grant also will help Kresge’s Environment and Social Investment staff deepen relationships with aligned nonprofit organizations, equipment manufacturers and installers, and financial institutions and, we hope, help us see how we can follow our grant with investment capital to bring solar + storage to Puerto Rico and beyond.

Jessica Boehland is a senior program officer on Kresge’s Environment Program. Kim Dempsey is the deputy director of the Kresge Social Investment Practice. 

Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
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