'We're Building Another Puerto Rico': Communities Adapt to Climate Change

A few steps from its headquarters, Casa Pueblo built a Solar Forest that serves as an energetic oasis for the community when the power goes out. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

In the densely forested mountains of central Puerto Rico, nonprofit Casa Pueblo has captured the world's attention for its efforts to turn the municipality of Adjuntas into the island-commonwealth’s first solar town. Residents call it an "energy insurrection" in their battle with the effects of climate change.

Founded in 1980, the nonprofit was launched to confront mining exploitation in the region. The nonprofit’s struggle continued for more than a decade, until the government ultimately banned open-pit mining in 1995. A year later, the organization proposed designating mine-damaged areas as forest reserves, rescuing some 35,000 acres of land. The process was described as "Casa Pueblo's first momentous step toward sustainable development," turning the area into a forest for the people.

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Puerto Rican Town Goes Solar as It Adapts to Climate Change

"We began by defending the land, the waters and the future of our town of Adjuntas and the central area. Now the goal of Casa Pueblo is to remain active, creative, with ecological, cultural, educational, and musical sovereignty projects," Alexis Massol González, co-founder of Casa Pueblo, told Voice of America.

Headquartered in an old mansion just steps from the town square, Casa Pueblo’s main building is also connected to an abandoned school, which houses its community projects. Roughly 80,000 people visit the center annually to learn about their efforts.

Entrance to the Casa Pueblo headquarters, located in a house built more than 120 years ago in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

Motivated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil, natural gas and coal, the group set out to start a solar revolution.

"People continue insisting on generating fossil fuel-based electricity, so Casa Pueblo started a community-led energy insurrection to tell the public that we are going to break free from that dependency," Massol González said.

They installed the first solar panels as an experiment in 1999, unaware then that by 2017 they would achieve energy independence for the mountain town of some 18,000 residents, just a few months before Hurricane Maria, the second deadliest in U.S. history, destroyed Puerto Rico's electrical system.

According to analysis by the independent research provider Rhodium Group, Hurricane Maria caused the second largest blackout in the world, leaving 3.4 million people without power. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans did not regain service until almost a year after the cyclone.

"At Casa Pueblo the power never went out, we became an energy oasis. Hundreds of people came here for dialysis, respiratory therapy, to store medicines, charge cell phones and more. At that moment, the veil of poverty and inequality in this country was lifted," said Massol González.

Photovoltaic generation installation that supplies energy to the Casa Pueblo headquarters. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

During the time Puerto Rico spent without power, Casa Pueblo and international organizations that sponsor their work set out to install solar panels in businesses, emergency medical centers, nursing homes, and rural schools.

Because many Adjuntas residents cannot afford the $7,500 required to solarize their home, 100% of the cost is covered through donations from individuals and private companies, cultural centers, alliances with foundations and fundraising events, says Massol González. He points out that although Casa Pueblo does not ask residents to help cover the cost of solar panel installations, each home is required to contribute $5-10 dollars each month into an emergency fund for repairs.

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Although the Adjuntas solar network represents about 8% of Puerto Rico’s self-generated energy, Puerto Rico’s legislature in 2019 passed a law committing the U.S. territory to meeting its energy needs with 100% renewable energy by 2050, in addition to reaching intermediate goals of 40% by 2025.

"We have done many projects so that they see that this is the path for this country, that it is a commitment to our people, but also to climate change," he said.

"We want to build an alternative homeland, a better country, a better society, so that youth have a promising future," he added. "It is called Casa Pueblo because it is the home of Puerto Rican men and women. No matter your ideology or thought, here we are united."

The walls of Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas are adorned by art dedicated to the organization and the Goldman Environmental Prize certificates they won in 2002.(Salome Ramirez/VOA)

For their environmental management efforts, Massol González and Casa Pueblo received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002, considered "the Nobel Prize for the environment."

The solar panels located in the solar forest are installed in the shape of trees, giving the area its distinctive name. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

The organization maintains projects such as Radio Casa Pueblo, the first community radio station; the Forest School, where classes are taught amid nature; the solar forest, which serves as an energy oasis; a music school that offers children Saturday classes; an art gallery to exhibit works by local artists, and a brand of artisan coffee whose sale profits fund their operation.

In the solar forest, the community can access energy to charge their devices in an area decorated by local artists. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

"We are building another Puerto Rico and we are doing it in real life practice," added Massol González.

Pieces of wood were adapted in the solar forest as seats that at each end have connections to electricity. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

Community management

The project to provide energy for businesses in Adjuntas began with a barbershop near the plaza that was founded 40 years ago by Wilfredo Pérez González (no relation to Massol González). After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the barber — like the rest of the island — was left without power.

Pérez González had to get creative to keep his business afloat. A neighbor let him connect to her gasoline-powered generator for short periods of time using an extension cord, allowing him to do limited work. That changed when Casa Pueblo staff visited his business in January 2018 and offered to power it with solar. A few days later, Barbería Pérez became a fully solar-powered establishment.

Entrance to the Perez Barbershop, one of the first businesses in Adjuntas to start operating with solar energy after Hurricane María in 2017. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

"I tell people that this is good because the power goes out all the time. Put solar panels, which are good. Now, I’m not aware when the power goes out," says Pérez González. "Without them I couldn't work in peace. This is the best thing there is."

The solar panels that rest on the roof of the Perez barbershop in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, provide enough voltage to power the entire business. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

The Pérez Barbershop became one of the first businesses in Adjuntas to get 100% of its power from solar energy. But soon, he won’t be the only one. Pérez will be joined by a group of entrepreneurs who have teamed up to establish a micro-grid to achieve energy independence for the town of about 18,000.

Wilfredo Perez, owner of the Perez barbershop, which he founded 40 years ago in the same place where he continues to serve the community today. (Salome Ramirez/VOA)

Gustavo Irizarry is the owner of Lucy's pizzeria and a member of the Adjuntas Solar Energy Community Association (ACESA). After Hurricane Maria, he spent six months without electricity and had to pay $17,000 in diesel to operate his generators. That will change once he installs solar panels.

"Having renewable energy is a great advantage for me and my employees. I have female heads of households that work here, and they know that they are going to have a job every day, no matter the power conditions. The people in the fields will be able to come to the town where we can offer them continuous services," stated Irizarry.

The merchants formed the ACESA corporation, the first renewable energy sales company in Puerto Rico.

"We are going to pay for our own electricity, we are going to create an economy and govern that economy, we are going to continue creating more solar homes and more solar businesses, it is a really nice project," Irizarry says.

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These businesses expect the installation of 800 solar panels needed to fulfill those plans will take four years to complete. The Honnold Foundation, created by mountaineer Alex Honnold to provide grants to organizations that promote access to solar energy throughout the world, is supporting the project.

"After the hurricane we saw the weakness in our energy system. …. People lined up for hours for access to food and gasoline. When you live through that, your priorities totally change. All of Puerto Rico realized that without energy we cannot survive," recalls Irizarry.

Casa Pueblo’s goal is to have 50% of Puerto Rico’s energy demand covered with solar power generation by 2027, ten years after Hurricane Maria.