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Energizing Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria  

How YPO member Alejandro Uriarte is strengthening Puerto Rico with solar energy

Six months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017, devastating the island and causing widespread destruction, power has yet to be fully restored even as the next hurricane season is set to launch for the Atlantic on 1 June.

A near Category 5, (there are five categories of hurricanes in total — one being the smallest and five the largest), the storm made a direct hit on Puerto Rico, lashing the island with wind and rain for more than 30 hours.

Today, concurrent efforts by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to distribute food and water to parts of the island still without, all while building Puerto Rico’s resiliency to ensure it can withstand the next hurricane have created a “perfect storm” of renewable activity.

For President of New Energy Consultants and Contractors and YPO member Alejandro Uriarte, that means building a critical solar-powered infrastructure on the island and pushing renewable energy efforts to the forefront of the communities concerns. Uriarte, whose professional trajectory was in finance and banking prior to joining New Energy, recognized the potential of implementing solar in Puerto Rico long before the hurricane’s catastrophic effects.

“When I was approached by my (now) partners at New Energy in 2012 to help them get access to financing, I recognized that solar had a strong place in Puerto Rico due to the PREPA (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) situation and high energy cost,” says Uriarte. “I wanted to be part of a company that could make a profit while helping the environment and financial well-being of their customers.”

PREPA, which has a monopoly on the island’s power, is also in receipt of an electrical grid that suffered numerous failures even before Hurricane Maria and recovery has made the grid even less reliable. This, together with political and staffing struggles, has exacerbated the island’s tenuous hold on an expedited recovery.

A silver lining

“Sadly, a disaster like Maria was needed to shake PREPA’s outdated way of operating and allowed us to finally look for alternative ways of achieving our energy goals,” says Uriarte. “Before the hurricane, people imagined renewables could help them save on their electric bill; now everyone is aware that being energy independent is the best way to protect their household or business from future storms.”

While moving toward a more decentralized grid, the island’s inhabitants will benefit from a reduced dependency on external organizations. However, some of the initiatives put in place post-Maria come with an expiration date.

“Residential solar and storage are working on the island because there has been no need to go through a permitting process with PREPA under an emergency executive order issued by the governor,” explains Uriarte. “Once this order expires and we need to get permits for each installation, things could deteriorate very quickly. For this reason, we need to have more incentives for individuals or businesses to move to solar.”

Uriarte also mentions a lack of financing options in the renewables market, indicating that the creation of a solar loan loss provision or insurance could reduce the default risk and attract more investors.

Retroactive aspects of rebuilding using renewable energy

For those on the island who have installed a solar or storage system, their power consumption has become evident, as they are able to measure their usages and as such, are becoming conscious consumers.

“We are seeing the phenomenon of moving to solar helping the whole island reduce consumption,” says Uriarte. “This will retroactively help the economy by providing savings to each household by reducing PREPA bills and diesel for generators which many have been reliant upon.”

Uriarte, who will be speaking at the Real Estate Industry Roundtable — a YPO Innovation Week 2018 event — is both thrilled to be presenting as well as learning.

“I will be telling anecdotes about the ways New Energy had to adapt after Maria, as well as discussing practical ideas developers can leverage to make their projects more resilient and energy efficient,” he says by way of a sneak peek. “I am also looking forward to learning about ways in which other innovative companies are ensuring their growth in a competitive market; YPO has provided me with great contacts, all of whom have aided the growth of my company. The support I have received from the organization has been invaluable.”

Deborah Stoll’s work as a journalist has been featured in The Economist’s online magazine, More Intelligent Life, in LA Weekly and its food blog, Squid Ink, as well as on the music site Buzzbands LA. Her short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles quarterly Slake and the literary website Fresh Yarn. As a musician, Stoll’s songs have been featured on American Idol, Glee and CSI: Miami, and her collective work as a content creator and animator has more than 1 million views on YouTube.