Community Solar in Vieques

In February 2022, I had the immense privilege and pleasure of traveling from Philadelphia to the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico for three weeks to assist with multiple residential solar installations there that were being led by Lu Yoder. I learned so much from that experience -- not only from the technical process of assembly/installation, but from the communal barn-raising style in which the systems were installed, and most importantly, from the rich histories of anti-colonial and anti-militarist resistance that community members shared as we worked together.

I travelled there with fellow Philly activist, Pete Tridish, who has a long history of involvement in community radio and struggles for local access to the airwaves. Two years prior, he and Lu had worked to get some 300 donated solar panels transported to the island and distributed among Vieques residents who could put them to use. All of the systems that were installed in January and February of 2022 also made use of those panels (shout out to Power Up Gambia! for that support).

Petri and a compa chilling around some inverter gear.

Lu, who brings decades of experience in solar power efforts, had arrived three weeks prior and had already completed two full installations (in lively collaboration with the residents of the homes) and was working on a third when Pete and I landed. Joined and assisted by community members at every stage, we subsequently completed that home which was already underway and contributed to the full or partial completion of an additional three installations, as well as advising/helping with repairs at a few other sites. At each house where we worked on a system, the owners and other local volunteers participated in the installing of the equipment and gained skills which they immediately shared forward with the owners of the next home scheduled to go solar. Lu will be leading/repeating the effort again in January to March 2023 (with the intention of staying longer and completing even more homes) and I encourage you to support his project! See either his current GoFundMe fundraiser for Sol-Rinquen Vieques here. Or, if you would like your donation to this solar project in Vieques to be tax deductible, please send it to the project's non-profit partners at International Media Action.

As Lu notes, “Because of Viequenses’ experience with blackouts people are already convinced that solar-plus-storage on the consumer side of the meter is a good idea.  The only barriers are cost, expertise, and community effort.  There are plans to improve and add renewables to the grid in Vieques and Culebra.  Solar-plus-storage is compatible with this plan, as it reduces the grid’s burden while also providing a consumer hedge against rate hikes.  Already the unelected oversight board in Puerto Rico has privatized electrical distribution and proposed a tax on rooftop solar, reducing people’s confidence that the grid will be managed with either the consumer or the planet in mind.”

Across six fun and busy weeks (of which I personally was only able to attend three), project volunteers in 2022 succeeded in: 

  • Picking up and delivering the last 28 of 300 donated solar panels from the warehouse in Toa Baja

  • Shipping panels, supplies, racks, batteries, and electronics for 5 installations to Vieques

  • Completing 4.5 installations on Vieques

  • Helping out on 4 other installations/repairs

  • Conducting about a dozen consultations for future systems

  • Holding two well-attended workshops at two of the installations

  • Doing the majority of our commuting by bicycle

  • Prototyping a successful kitchen counter water distiller for making battery water

  • Keeping 2-5 volunteers working on solar installations every day for 5 weeks

  • Familiarizing a couple resident/installers with the basics of solar energy and electricity

  • Sharing work, tools, and expertise with local installers and activists

hard at work success!

The majority of the systems included ~1KW solar panels (4 panels at 300W each), a 2KW inverter, and a 2.5 kw/hr bank of batteries.

Having never before been to Puerto Rico or Vieques myself, what was most exciting to me was the way in which these solar power installations were understood and integrated within a larger political context of struggles for community autonomy and health. The first home we worked on was located on land that had been re-occupied by Viequense residents who for generations had been deeply involved in the struggles to get the U.S. Navy presence off the island. The ground on which it stood was fought for night after night, in 1999-2003, amidst confrontations with the massive U.S. military apparatus, as residents pushed back the fences marking “Navy land” (having been forcibly seized decades prior and having become the site of constant bombing tests/raids and U.S. military training maneuvers).

One of the last homes where we installed a solar system belonged to a fiercely dedicated people’s lawyer/organizer (and her mother) who had offered up years of her life blood to try to thwart the privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy grid. In still another home, the reality of having a solar system with battery back-up suddenly meant that the person there who was the primary caretaker for her brother, whose illness confined him to an electric-powered bed and health-monitoring systems, wouldn’t have to live in fear of another storm taking out the energy-powered systems that were keeping him alive. This woman not only helped install her own system; she also helped with every single other system we installed along the way. Her presence, energy, and willingness to dive into learning processes and concepts that were completely new to her, helped me every day that I was there to push aside some of my own doubts and lack of confidence in doing the same! The entire experience renewed my own sense of hope and urgency around the power and possibility of such efforts toward community autonomy at each and every scale on which they occur.

et Voila

For folks interested in reading more about the technical specifics of the solar systems we worked on, please see Lu’s observations regarding how those systems are working today:

“All of the installations are working as planned.  During times of available grid electricity, the systems save the households about 3.5 kwh per day (roughly $1) or 7 kwh per day for the 8-panel system.  During a blackout, they will provide that amount of electricity which is sufficient for a refrigerator, lights, fans, computer, and cellphones.  As we connected the inverter to the 5th system Puerto Rico experienced an island wide black-out.  We quickly flipped on the inverter and kept on working.  Later we heard that the other households hadn’t noticed the black-out until their neighbors called them to tell them the lights were out everywhere else.  Each system has a charge controller that displays the daily “harvest” of solar energy, as well as a battery monitor that logs the total use of the loads that are on the dedicated “solar” circuits in the household.  The inverter is programmed to charge the batteries at night if the voltage of the batteries drops below a threshold considered good for long battery life.  Each “critical circuit” is individually selectable between the grid and the solar electric system, so the household can “tune” the solar use of the system to maximize the daily solar harvest without over-tapping the batteries. Finally, each household has a 20 amp load timer that allows them to experiment with “locking out” their refrigerator for all or part of the night, giving the solar more of a chance to work during the day and giving the batteries a break at night.  This concept of “load shifting” (shifting toward off-peak/renewables and away from on-peak/storage) is novel and often muddled and confusing for the average resident of the US, but for most Viequenses it is already a part of their working knowledge base, having survived after hurricane Maria with intermittent electricity.

We found that with a slightly standardized kit of parts and supplies four volunteers can complete an installation in two to five days.  The goal remains to conduct installations as workshops so neighbors and friends can learn about solar electricity, rather than to complete the work quickly.  Therefore, increasing the scale of the project is only a matter of equipping more installation teams with the tools and expertise. Certain tools can be shared between installation teams, along with the information in a growing repository of what works on Vieques."

Again, if you want to support Lu and other volunteers in this upcoming winter of 2023, please get involved and help!  There is the opportunity to help raise funds; develop sources to buy inverters, batteries, and materials; work on the lithium-ion battery transition; work on the bulk solar panel purchase; and provide tools and expertise.  Also in Vieques, there are additional opportunities to plan future installations and workshops, join the Grupo Instalador, and do logistics and outreach.  Thank you!

CONTACT: Lu Yoder 508-817-6573

TAX-DEDUCTIBLE DONATIONS: If you would like your donation to this solar project in Vieques to be tax deductible, please send it to the project's non-profit partners at International Media Action.

VENMO: Lu Yoder @Lusolarone


Mail: Lu, 98 Reed Rd., Westport MA, 02790

raisin the roof

This site does not use cookies. It does not spy on you, report your activity or track you.