Big results from small solar systems

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SAN JUAN, P.R. — As Joseph Mangum was setting out to help bring power to the hurricane-battered island of Puerto Rico, we knew he would probably be out of touch for some time. There was no electricity for most of the island, and that meant no internet access or phone service. And, to make communication even harder, he was going into the island's hard hit interior.

Mangum, who runs Sunnyside Solar in West Brattleboro, is being accompanied by his friend Mark Lamoureux, who works installing solar systems in Keene, N.H. After about a week I started getting news from the pair. At first, the phone connections were so poor that I was unable to make out about half the words Mangum said. Nevertheless, I was able to get a sense of what was going on.

I began receiving emails on Nov. 8, but they were short because he did not have much time to work at a computer. Over a few days, I got a picture of what was going on. Mangum and Lamoureux have installed five systems, though not exactly as planned. Mangum has also distributed food, water purification systems, and seeds.

He started near San Juan, in a place called San Jos , with a 1-kilowatt (kW) system that was installed in a bicycle shop. The system powers tools, and local people can gather there and get hit by a breeze from a fan as they charge their cell phones.

After that, Mangum and Lamoureux went to Juncos, south of San Juan and well inland. The coastal communities have had a lot more attention from the federal government than those in the interior, and while power outages are a reality in San Juan, the situation in Juncos is much worse.

They installed two systems there, one of which was set up at a repair shop to provide power for battery-powered tools. These are very important. Many of the island's tools were lost as garages and shops were destroyed by the hurricane and its floods. Now, when they are needed most, they are not available. Like the other systems being installed, this system is available to local people to charge cell phones and get wifi-to-satellite access.

The second system in Juncos was set up at a shelter where elderly people gather. It provides a little comfort in the heat to people who are very vulnerable, as it powers a fan.

"George, you have no idea how brutal this heat can be," wrote Mangum.

A little energy can also put people in connection with their loved ones, so a tiny 1-kW system can be a real boon.

Mangum had planned to put four systems up at emergency shelters, but that changed. By the time he arrived, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already visited the other shelters he had plans for, dropping off generators and other supplies. I want to stress that while the soldiers did a great deal of hard work, they did only a tiny fraction of what was needed.

Certainly, some of the resources that otherwise might have gone to Puerto Rico were already allocated to other areas of the United States, including Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia. Those locations were a priority because of timing; hurricanes hit them before Maria hit Puerto Rico. But on the mainland, many of us forget that Puerto Rico is, in fact, part of the United States, and the people in need there are, in fact, citizens of this country.

Now the Army has been ordered out, with only a tiny fraction of the work finished, leaving only the National Guard to continue its work.

Mangum traveled into the mountainous areas of the center of the island. One system was installed in Ciales, at a mushroom farm that needed electricity. The mushrooms can provide food for local people.

In Utuado, he installed a solar system at a greenhouse growing organic food. It supplies a minimum level of support to keep the greenhouse going.

These installations show the importance of small systems. The 1-kW systems Mangum installed enable a large amount of food production in a place where there is no food to be had, and there is, for practical purposes, no ground transportation to bring any in.

The greenhouse had also needed seeds. Mangum was able to provide enough to keep going for a while, and is arranging for well over 100,000 more to be brought in.

All these tidbits of information do not really convey how bad things are.

"The interior of the island is largely forgotten, the mountains could just as well be Timbuktu," wrote Mangum. "Devastation is everywhere. Rosemary's grandmother's neighborhood is all hazardous poles in the middle of the street hanging down. There are literally power cables running along her outer fence in the front yard."

He wrote that the local people could not clear away the power poles they had to pass under on the roads, because it is a federal offense to touch them. They have to sit and wait, day after day, for help that does not come, to unblock the roads. He said he believes the estimates of the time needed to restore the grid are overly optimistic, and that in some areas it will take well over a year.

"Those with means are OK," said Mangum. "They can make the trip to the larger coastal towns and buy food, water and gas for their generators. The poor are literally out in the rain. Most had barely running cars that Maria finished and they have also lost houses, garages, tools, etc. There is no water and power will be years away."

Electric power, water, and food are only part of the problem, noted Mangum. He spoke of the dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and other animals that wander around, without care or intervention. "There are dogs everywhere because the owners fled or the dogs just ran in terror."

He is changing his focus. He is now working on delivering food and water, seeds, solar lights, tools, and building supplies. He said one especially vexing problem is that while there are solar panels in many areas, they are not set up to run off the grid, and there are no deep-cycle batteries available.

The economic conditions in Puerto Rico are making the problem worse. Though it is part of the United States, the island has a special status. While it gets some benefits, it also has some real disadvantages. One, Mangum told me, is that the minimum wage is $4 per hour. That would be fine in a place where everything is less expensive, but the reverse is the case. Most things cost more. Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States, import duties have to be paid on goods from the United States. And all of the shipping from other parts of the United States to Puerto Rico has to be done on ships that have U.S. registration, which makes bringing things in that much more difficult.

Failures of privatization are clearly getting in the way. One example is the road system. It was privatized, I am told, and now all the roads are toll roads. In theory, the upkeep of the roads is to be done by the people who own the roads and collect the tolls. But in practice, sustainability has been ignored, and so the tolls are taken on roads that are in rapid decay, with little attempt to keep them up, as the owners pocket the profits. Presumably, when the roads are so bad that they need major repairs costing a lot of money, the owners can declare the business bankrupt and walk away without personal losses. The storm has made a bad road system into a barely passable nightmare, at best.

A further problem is a sort of continuation of archaic Spanish colonial systems that the U.S. government really should never have permitted. In many places, tenant farmers have been working in exchange for a place to live and the ability to get some of the crops raised. Landowners have sometimes paid for services in credits, which could be cashed in at a local store. The result of this is that many people have been working without pay under circumstances that are hard to escape.

When Hurricane Maria hit, these people's houses were destroyed, because they were of very cheap construction. Their crops, tools, and supplies were destroyed by the storm. Any cars they had access to are gone. The stores where they had credits are gone. They have never had any opportunity to save money, and so they have none. They are living under scraps of building materials salvaged from the wreckage, without food, without water, and without hope.

They are American citizens, and the government of the United States is disgracing itself badly in the way it is letting them down.

Mangum's crowdfunding campaign is still going on, and any donations will fund more solar systems. It can be visited at www.gofundme.com/solargens4pr.

George Harvey can be contacted at geoharvey@aol.com, A version of this story appears at the website Green Energy Times.

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