Meet the Architect Helping to Build a Solar-Powered Future for Puerto Rico
Ever since Hurricane Maria devastated the island last fall, Jonathan Marvel and his team at Resilient Power Puerto Rico have been sparking a renewables revolution, one community at a time.
The inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller was perhaps best known for the idea of Spaceship Earth, which sees our planet as a set of interconnected systems. His grandnephew, the architect and urban designer Jonathan Marvel, has a similar vision, albeit on a smaller scale: to harness the power of the sun to heal hurricane-ravaged communities of Puerto Rico, his birthplace.
From New York, Marvel followed the rash of storms that blew through the Caribbean in September 2017. Shocked by the devastation left in Hurricane Maria’s wake—including the destruction of Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure, which cut off power for an estimated 3.4 million people—he vowed to help. Using his experience working with energy efficiency and environmentally friendly design at his New York– and San Juan–based firm, Marvel Architects, he developed a plan to bring solar energy to the people of Puerto Rico and set about securing funding. His vision was partly inspired by solar-powered childhood summers on an off-the-grid island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay (Marvel’s architect father also had an interest in renewables), and his plan was modeled on a successful recovery effort in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy by a group called Power Rockaways Resilience.
That fall, with Cristina Roig-Morris, a Puerto Rican also living in New York City, Marvel launched Resilient Power Puerto Rico. The group—Marvel, Roig-Morris, and a small team of advisers and partners with headquarters in San Juan—decided to focus on repowering residential buildings, community centers, and the microgrid (local, freestanding power grids that operate autonomously from the central electrical system). Initial efforts have focused on the community buildings because, Marvel says, “we can impact the lives of a lot of people with a small investment.”
In Maria’s aftermath, community centers became the source of basic necessities like food, water, power, and information. And in many high-density areas, Marvel notes, up to 5,000 people can live within a short walk of these hubs. So far, supported largely by investments from foundations in Puerto Rico and diaspora communities in New York and Silicon Valley, his team has installed enough solar panels to power seven community centers. The goal is to equip more than 200 centers across all of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities.
Resilient Power Puerto Rico isn’t the first initiative to try to steer the island away from its dependence on fossil fuels, of course. But updating a grid that currently draws 98 percent of its power from oil, gas, and coal plants is no simple task—particularly given the financial troubles of the island’s public electric utility, PREPA, which has a monopoly on energy services and went bankrupt last July. Marvel says that a few larger engineering companies were installing and financing some renewables before Maria, but there had been a “fear factor” about renewable energy on the island.
“The existing utility made it really hard, if not impossible, for people to install renewable energy systems on their homes,” Marvel says, referring to PREPA. “The market was not ready for this—until Hurricane Maria came along.” Marvel explains that a couple of weeks after the storm, with power still out for more than 90 percent of residents, Governor Ricardo Rosselló waived the convoluted permitting process for installing batteries for solar panels. “That window allowed us to jump in and bring renewables to Puerto Rico in a meaningful way,” he says.
Marvel and Resilient Power Puerto Rico immediately reached out to Tesla, which they hoped would supply batteries and support their larger vision for making Puerto Rico’s energy grid more resilient. The company was eager to be involved and asked them to do three “proof of concept” installations to show that their plan—installing solar panels and two batteries, one active and one backup, on each community center—was viable. Once completed, Tesla said, it would sell the team batteries at wholesale prices, pending certification of locally trained installers. The company encouraged Marvel to “think big,” on an island-wide scale.
Resilient Power Puerto Rico did the trial installations in the high-density neighborhood of Caño Martín Peña, historically one of the poorest in the San Juan metropolitan area and one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Maria. The neighborhood is also unique in that local residents had united to form a community land trust in 2015, the first project of its kind in the country, dedicated to improving environmental and housing conditions for local residents. “They’re already kind of the gold standard and model for the other communities to look at as an example of leadership skills and how to get organized, apply for grants, provide services,” Marvel says. “We knew we could get a lot of other groups to come and look at this installation to take the fear factor out of solar panels and batteries.”
The initiative did indeed attract attention from both residents and potential partners, including Luis Martinez. A senior attorney at NRDC who focuses on strengthening renewable energy programs, Martinez is also from Puerto Rico, and he knew Marvel through a childhood friend. In the early days after Maria, Martinez would direct people who wanted to help to send donations to Resilient Power Puerto Rico. He was impressed by the speed at which the organization was responding to the crisis on the ground, and by its long-term vision. “We were talking to a whole bunch of people about what we could do in Puerto Rico, and if you dug deep enough, every single one of those conversations led us back to the Resilient Power Puerto Rico effort and Jonathan Marvel,” Martinez says.
An opportunity soon arose for NRDC to support the installation of a solar array on a community center. With the environmental justice community group Proyecto ENLACE, NRDC helped repower the Mini Oratorio Los Hijos de Don Bosco in Caño Martín Peña; soon after, NRDC collaborated with Marvel’s team on an installation in Vieques at the Fortín Conde de Mirasol (the last Spanish fort built in the Americas), home to an art gallery and a museum.
Now that Resilient Power Puerto Rico has outfitted a number of community centers and other sites, Marvel is ready to take the project to the next level. With support from the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, plans include offering various financial incentives—such as low-interest loans and grants—to individual homeowners to power up residential-scale solar across the island.
Although there has been some progress throughout Puerto Rico, Martinez notes that the water contamination, health care, and mental health situations are still dire. Puerto Ricans are focused on these challenges as well as the island’s long-term disaster planning. Marvel adds that many Puerto Ricans long held a superstition that the island was being spared from harm, but things have changed. “I think everybody has had the wake-up call that renewable energy is a real, dramatically efficient, and cost-effective way to get electricity to everyone on the island,” he says.
It’s a tall order, but Marvel is a dreamer and an islander at heart. As he says, “If you can make an island work—its communities, its infrastructure, its systems—you can make the planet work.”
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