Grassroots Solar sends energy kits to Puerto Rico
MANCHESTER — Last week, Puerto Rican authorities confirmed that over half of the U.S. territory remains in the dark following September's Hurricane Maria.
In the city of Caguas, resting in Puerto Rico's Central Mountain Range, residents were told that power may not be restored for over nine months. Dorset's Bill Laberge is working to change that.
Laberge, a member of Governor Phil Scott's Climate Action Commission, saw a solution in his solar energy business Grassroots Solar. Prior to Hurricane Maria Laberge had begun working with new customers in Danby, a husband and wife originally from Puerto Rico. It was then that the group began discussing ways to bring solar energy to family members who remained on the island.
"At the time I has been formulating these portable emergency energy kits for Vermonters, for when the power goes out; that was sort of the genesis of the whole idea," Laberge said. "When the hurricane hit, we knew that we had to do this."
Over Thanksgiving, the pair brought prototypes to Caguas, packing inverters, chargers, controllers, and a tangle of electronics into a duffle bag. Before their departure, Laberge hosted a mini-training session on how to put the panels together. Coming with their own set of instructions, the panels are designed to "plug and play" according to Laberge, and they quickly gained popularity in Puerto Rico.
"We knew what the response was going to be; all of the neighbors want one," said Laberge, who hopes to continue distributing the panels. "We're in the middle of designing the packages right now."
While the concept excited him, Laberge admits that forming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in order to accept donations was not feasible. Instead, Grassroots Solar has paired with Neighborworks of Western Vermont as a fiscal sponsor.
"We're flying down on Feb. 5 with five or ten of these packages in order to train some of the local electricians," Laberge said. "We'll have a training day, and then hopefully do 100 of these in a pilot program."
To help potential customers with financing, the group is working with a number of local cooperativas in Puerto Rico, similar to credit unions. Alongside donations facilitated by Neighborworks, the cooperativas can help finance the kits for those who had good credit and financial histories prior to the hardships imposed by the storm.
"These kits will cost them less than what they used to pay the utility for electricity," Laberge said. "If they were paying $75 a month it will cost them $60 a month now, they'll have power, and they don't have to worry about the grid."
In the long term, Laberge would like to train local electricians to allow for a degree of autonomy in the region.
And in Vermont? Laberge hopes that locals will be equally excited by the concept.
"To me, everybody in Vermont has an interest in solar," Laberge said. "We lost power during a wind storm a month ago, and what was your plan? Were you without power, did you just need to make sure the meat in your freezer didn't go bad? Was your pellet stove on? Really it's about energy security; people can feel secure that when the power goes out, everything will be okay."
A string of recent extreme weather events emphasize the need for that security, Laberge says, and have the potential to inspire a larger conversation about energy policy.
"To me this is just a huge opportunity for the world to see that we can actually operate in a different paradigm," he said.
In it's people-powered model, Laberge says that the ongoing project embodies the mission of Grassroots Solar.
"This is being done on the grassroots level," Laberge said. "We want to train people in Puerto Rico or Danby or wherever they are that they can actually do this. What we want to do is help them help themselves."
Reach Cherise Madigan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 802-490-6471.
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