Months After a Devastating Hurricane, Puerto Rican Schools Turn to the Sun

School Infrastructure

Months After a Devastating Hurricane, Puerto Rican Schools Turn to the Sun

By Lillian E. Agosto-Maldonado     May 30, 2018

Months After a Devastating Hurricane, Puerto Rican Schools Turn to the Sun
Solar panels on this school in central Puerto Rico provide power in an area still facing outages.

Orocovis, Puerto Rico—Eight months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, more than 500 families in this small town in central Puerto Rico remain without power. But one school here has managed to get the lights back on by switching to solar power, part of an island-wide move to rethink utilities that are often taken as a given elsewhere.

The school, Escuela Segunda Unidad Matrullas, lost electricity when the devastating storm hit the island, part of an epic power outage that impacted more than half of this island U.S. territory. Since the school is located nearly 30 minutes from the town center, it was difficult to access after the storm, and the power was expected to be out for months. But thanks to efforts by activists and solar-power providers, in January one building of the school was equipped with 54 solar panels and a solar microgrid for battery storage.

"With solar energy we have been able to turn on a building with several rooms, the school canteen and administrative offices,” says Alberto Meléndez, principal of the school. “The faces of the boys when they saw the cafeteria on were incredible. Many of them still do not have electricity in their homes, so they are only seeing electricity at school. It is a hope for them."

Gone are noisy gas generators. The solar system relies instead on the quiet, renewable rays of the sun.

Meléndez explained that the installation of the solar energy system in one of the buildings of the school is only the first step to separate the school from reliance on the electric company. "We also want to implement a rainwater harvesting system and work with a seed germination project," he says.

The director added that he already has other nearby schools that are interested in joining the project to make "green" or eco-friendly schools. "We have neighboring schools with two and four solar panels that come here and ask us about our system,” he says. “We want to inspire more schools. Our goal is to become independent of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority."

For the Department of Education of Puerto Rico, this initiative is expected to saving more than $25,000 a year in energy costs. The department has announced that it plans to close 266 schools due to a sharp fall in enrollment as families have left the island after the storm.

The department says it understands the desire to equip more schools with solar systems. But a spokesperson said that factors such as a school’s location, size and the difficulties of changing to electrical equipment with low-energy consumption influence the process.

The initiative came after a visit by of Manuel Cidre, former independent candidate to the government of Puerto Rico and businessman, and the group Por los Nuestros, to the school campus. "We started to energize the Escuela Segunda Unidad Matrullas of Orocovis with solar panels,” said Cidre on his Facebook page. “Puerto Rico needs a different energy model for the central zone of the island, and renewable energy is the right direction," he added.

For Danny Aguayo, a Spanish teacher for students in fourth through eighth grades, this has been the "most impressive" moment he has had in his two years at the school and his 18 years teaching.

Aguayo says that due to the isolated location of the school, it was difficult to arrive after the hurricane. "The collapsed mountains and the trees on the ground made the path difficult. With the help of neighbors, students, teachers and employees of the school, we were able to be one of the first to receive children in Orocovis during the month of November," he says.

At first they got by without electricity, and teachers adjusted homework and test schedules so that they could complete the academic year. In so many ways, Aguayo has faced a school year far different from the one he started last September.

"In Orocovis there is a lot of poverty, and knowing that my students lost their backpacks and materials after the hurricane is hard,” he says. "The situation is very critical. Some of my students tell how they saw their roofs fly or their houses flood. Many do not have basic services yet; we have an intermittent Internet or cell signal to communicate."

With the installation of solar panels, the school became a crucial center for students. The children, he says, attended to get distracted, charge their electronic equipment and use the computers at the school.

"Sometimes, when I get to the classroom, they're all welcoming me at the door so they can open it and turn on the lights,” he says, noting that some students still lack power at home. “The day we put the panels and had energy, they were shouting of joy.”

Several organizations are working toward a move to solar power on the island.

One of them is Casa Pueblo, a group started more than 38 years ago that has a stated goal of setting up enough solar panels to provide more than half of Puerto Rico’s energy needs. It points to a study by a researcher at the University of Puerto Rico that found that installing panels on 65 percent of the structures on the island would be enough to generate 100 percent of its energy needs.

In 2003, the group acquired 150 acres of land with its own effort to found La Olimpia Ariel Massol Deyá School Forest. The community project focused on education, conservation and research seeks to develop curricular experiences using the open spaces of the natural areas. The school includes a radio station and a cinema powered by solar.

Meanwhile the nonprofit Organization for Sustainable Environment is a nonprofit runs an effort called the Eco-Schools initiative. The program seeks to promote environmental management at school sites through the participation of students and their integration with the school community. It also exposes young people to the identification and solution of environmental problems in order to promote sustainable development in their community and their country. The schools that fulfill this purpose will be awarded with the Green Flag, the highest award of the program.

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