At a time when news about climate change (such as the lack of political will at COP24 and reports from the IPCC, NCA4, and UNEP) and its devastating impacts (including hurricane Maria and Florence, and the recent fires in California) is more frequent and frustrating, it’s inspiring to learn about initiatives in which visionary people are coming together to push for real actions that improve our quality of life, now and in the future, while reducing climate change emissions and preparing us for its impacts.
This is the case with the Queremos Sol Puerto Rico (We Want Sun Puerto Rico) initiative, which aims to have the island produce at least 50% of its electricity from renewable energy resources like solar and wind by 2035, and 100% by 2050.
To learn more about this initiative I talked with Dr. Agustín Irizarry, one of its collaborators and a professor of Electric Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.
Paula Garcia: What motivated this initiative?
Augustín Irizarry: Queremos Sol Puerto Rico is the result of people and organizations joining forces to promote development that is sustainable, local, and clean—starting right away.
For years we’ve heard the government promising an energy transition that is going to happen in the next 15 or 20 years. For decades we’ve been told that we’re going to reduce our dependence on imported oil. But then the proposed change is to buy coal or gas, and Puerto Rico doesn’t have any of these three resources.
But what we dohave is an extraordinary amount of sunlight that falls directly on the roofs of our homes. And if well installed, solar systems are extremely resilient to hurricanes and allow us to overcome the problems that we’re going to keep on facing due to climate change.
PG: Talking about climate change and Hurricane Maria…
AI: Hurricane Maria demonstrated the tremendous vulnerability of our electric system. It showed that even billions of dollars invested in centralized systems fueled by fossil fuels can’t guarantee that we won’t be in the dark again for months. This is a moment in which people are searching for alternatives to avoid going through what so many had to endure, living months and months without energy. That’s why after Maria everybody wants a solar system on their roof with a battery to store the energy.
PG: What is Queremos Sol Puerto Rico?
AI: Hurricane Maria accelerated our interest in and enthusiasm for deploying solar systems with energy storage throughout Puerto Rico.
So, the initiative includes these steps:
- Starting with solar systems on the roofs of houses to make them more resilient.
- Building “solar communities” where people go out to buy jointly solar systems to reduce costs.
- Creating community microgrids.
In terms of solar energy, the idea is to install rooftop solar systems of 2 to 5 kilowatts (kW) and pair them with energy storage systems of 10 to 20 kilowatts-hour (KWh). When we evaluated the capacity of these systems in Puerto Rico, we found the small ones (2kW, 10 kWh) can cover the basic energy needs of a household: fridge, washer, lights, cellphone, laptop. Bigger systems (4 kW, 20 kWh) can provide other modern comforts such as powering fans, Wi-Fi, TVs. With good sun conditions, a 5 kW solar system can also power an air conditioner for several hours.
PG: Is the configuration of the roofs adequate and the solar resource enough for the systems to operate efficiently?
AI: The majority of roofs in Puerto Rico are flat, and this is convenient for solar systems because at our latitude the sun is very high in the sky year-round; there’s no need for a lot of tilt for the panels. A lot of books talk about solar resources, but most of them have been written in latitudes other than the tropics, by people who don’t live in the tropics. So, it’s important to understand that the behavior of the sun here is characteristic of this region—it’s not the behavior of the sun at 40 degrees north or 40 degrees south. We’ve learned a lot about this, and learned not to listen to those books because they present information that isn’t accurate for our latitude.
We have an extraordinary solar resource here, we’ve been measuring it, and our studies are solid. Common wisdom says that panels should be tilted at the same angle as the latitude, and that’s true for places other than the tropics. For us, given our latitude and how high the sun is in the sky, it makes sense to locate the panels with a very small tilt. That way we lose only a little energy while saving a lot of costs in mounting materials and reducing the area exposed to hurricane winds and other risks.
Our roofs are excellent to capture solar energy. A proof of this is the 101 days that I lived solely powered by solar energy after Hurricane Maria, and my fridge never stopped running even with the cloudy skies.
PG: And what do we need to keep in mind in this transition that we’re undergoing toward renewable energy?
AI: The fight now is against the implementation of a solar tax and against penalties for being off the grid.
Those that want to generate and sell energy using fossil-fueled power plants and inflexible systems should sell it at a price that is competitive with generating energy using solar roofs. We, as consumers, will decide if the price is competitive enough compared to installing solar roofs with storage. Consumers should have the option to decide what they prefer.
It’s vital not to penalize access to solar energy, not to apply a solar tax or forbid going off the grid. The sun that falls on our roofs is ours and no one should interfere on this. It’s like sticking your feet in the ocean—it should not be taxed.
It’s a philosophical concept about what belongs to us, where the government should not interfere. This philosophical concept, added to technological, cost, and environmental impact considerations, draws a clear path to follow.