February 6, 2018 Read More →

Solar Lamps Illuminate Dark Corners of Post-Storm Puerto Rico

Nonprofit Quarterly:

El Puente’s program in Puerto Rico is called Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, or Latino Link of Climate Action, though staff and members refer to it as El Puente. Today it has close to 100 members representing organizations across the island. For the past few months, it has been distributing Ekotek solar lamps to people without electricity. The lamp is designed for people who do not have access to the electrical grid. It has a lithium battery that charges from the sun in 10–12 hours. It can also be plugged into an electrical outlet to charge or run on batteries, though those are hard to get in catastrophic times. In addition to the light—the biggest, at 1000 lumens, is bright enough to illuminate a small house—the lamp also has a radio and a cellphone charging port for meeting basic communications needs. The lamp is targeted to people living in poor areas but has proven popular during climate catastrophes.

Ekotek Energy, the Haitian company behind the lamps, has provided them to El Puente at cost. The lamps, which were designed in Haiti and manufactured in China, are considered unique and of high quality. Haiti started using them after the 2010 earthquake. To date, El Puente has distributed 10,000 lamps through its network. According to David Ortiz, the director of El Puente’s Puerto Rico program, each shipment of 3,000 costs $130,000. Acosta and Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) secure the lamps and raise the funds to cover the costs. They partner with the Puerto Rico-based Institute for Competitiveness and Economic Sustainability to retrieve the lamps from the Puerto Rican ports (making sure they don’t get stuck there, like many other goods) and distribute them to El Puente member organizations.

Yasmin Vigil, El Puente’s coordinator, says, “People get really emotional over the lamps.” Describing a woman who came to the office to pick up a lamp, Vigil says, “She kept saying, ‘Thank God, thank God,’ all the way down the hallway on her way out.” I experienced this myself when I went out with the El Puente team to distribute lamps in a very poor neighborhood in Santurce, a district of San Juan.

Many neighborhoods like this one have not been visited by aid workers, and its residents say they feel forgotten. Many of the houses are destroyed or locked up, its former residents gone “outside,” what Puerto Ricans call the US mainland.

Witnessing the appreciation for the most basic resources over and over again takes a toll. Ortiz says, “The first day we gave out lamps, after everyone left, we just sat here in silence. We couldn’t look at each other. We were so moved.” Marta Rojas, an El Puente member and the head of the education committee, agrees, “We cried a lot.”

Ortiz describes how, like the many other nonprofits on the island who served as first responders, the ones who mobilized quickly to respond to the catastrophe, they went door to door, checking on people, tracking needs. He says, “Well, we saw what was going on and, I think, it just made us work harder.”

The Battle for Renewable Energy in Puerto Rico

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