They’re giving Puerto Ricans power in a dark time. Solar panels to the rescue

Solar generators like this one are being shipped to community centers in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico by a group of islanders in the mainland United States.
Solar generators like this one are being shipped to community centers in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico by a group of islanders in the mainland United States. Courtesy Walter Meyer

A small network of Puerto Ricans on the mainland United States, led by an urban designer from Miami now working in New York, has quickly pulled together a broad effort to install solar-powered generators in community centers in remote or impoverished areas around their hurricane-ravaged native island.

Walter Meyer, principal of Brooklyn-based Local Office Landscape Architecture, said the group has arranged to fly a shipping container full of solar panels, electrical inverters and generators to the island, where they will be distributed and assembled by a team of expert volunteers. The container is set to go on a military relief flight from New York on Friday, said Meyer, a Miami native with close family in Puerto Rico.

The idea, he and others said, is to rapidly power up community hubs in some of the hard-hit areas on which locals depend for services, but that will likely also be among the last to get conventional electric power restored. The team, which will stay with Meyer’s father in the northwest town of Isabela, will also train locals to install the sophisticated generators.

“These are existing community centers, places that distribute food and water, where people can meet to power up cellphones — the most underserved, but also the ones at the bottom of the list for getting power back,” said Puerto Rico-born architect Jonathan Marvel, whose firm, Marvel Architects, with offices in New York and San Juan, put up $50,000 to seed the effort.

Marvel arrived in San Juan on Monday to lay the groundwork. That includes finalizing a list of community centers and hubs, which could include restaurants, clinics or other public spaces that serve locals in need.

The generators are built at three scales, with the smallest producing sufficient energy to power a fridge, fans or electric chainsaws, for instance. The largest 12-kilowatt generators can power a couple of houses, Meyer said. Each container-full can produce enough energy to serve 20,000 people, he estimates.

“These are expensive systems,” he said, noting that the batteries last 10 years.

Meyer and his partner in the firm, Jennifer Bolstad, collected the solar panels and batteries by asking vendors they work with for discounts and donated materials. Their firm, which specializes in resiliency design, is responsible for the largest solar array in the Caribbean, a garage-roof installation at the Ciudadela mixed-use project in San Juan that appears to have weathered Hurricane Maria successfully.

The small solar-generator idea has been battle-tested for storm relief, Meyer said. He successfully deployed solar generators to the Rockaways area of Queens after superstorm Sandy.

The group hopes to expand the effort so as to have 100 generators operating on Puerto Rico by the end of the year. They’ve set up a nonprofit,, to collect donations under the aegis of the Coastal Marine Resource Center. The goal: at least $250,000, Meyer said.

The generators can continue to serve the local centers after power is restored by helping lower electrical bills, lessen dependence on a shaky electric grid and perhaps even lead to wider adoption of solar energy in a place that seems a natural for it, he said.

Meyer, who graduated from South Dade High in Homestead before going on to study at the University of Florida and Harvard, said he was looking for a way to help when Puerto Rico native Cristina Roig Morris, a New York attorney, linked him up to Marvel and other members of the island’s diaspora. That led them to Puerto Rican-born U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y., who helped them tap into the military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Miami, Meyer’s firm designed the temporary Grand Central Park downtown and worked on sustainability elements of the ongoing Miracle Mile makeover in Coral Gables, among other projects. In Puerto Rico, the firm also designed the restoration and conversion into a park of a degraded shoreline in the western city of Mayagüez.