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Fighting For Puerto Rico's Solar Revolution — And Against Sexism

Can Puerto Rico’s abundant sunshine and ambitious women unlock its renewable energy potential?

Fighting For Puerto Rico's Solar Revolution — And Against Sexism

Yadira Sánchez Fuentes attaches a solar panel to the roof of Ángel G. Rivera Community School in Barrio Cacao, Orocovis.

​Coraly Cruz Mejías

OROCOVIS, PUERTO RICO — Every few weeks, Yadira Sánchez Fuentes fearlessly descends waterfalls and slippery caverns, often the only woman among a group of caving enthusiasts. The rest of the month, with that same strength, smile and sense of satisfaction, the petite brunette confidently scales rooftops to help install solar panels, simultaneously tackling two outdated problems: Puerto Rico’s energy grid and gender stereotypes.

“We have to create leaders, not followers,” the 44-year-old says.


More than four years after Hurricane Maria devastated the region, Puerto Rico continues to struggle with chronic power outages and millions of dollars of debt. Bureaucracy and the pandemic have delayed political and economic solutions. The ongoing crisis has fueled interest in harnessing the power of renewable energy — and the power of women, who make up more than half of Puerto Rico’s population but less than one-tenth of its engineers.

Help low-income areas become more resilient

Adjuntas, a mountain town in central Puerto Rico, has a population of about 18,000 and a system of solar panels that provides electricity to several businesses, an emergency center and more than 200 homes. Casa Pueblo, an environmental conservation organization based in the town, has run on solar power since 1999.

After the hurricane cut the region off from the electrical grid, its energy independence became a model for others. Seeing women as a similarly untapped resource, Casa Pueblo and other nongovernmental organizations began offering training opportunities to those who wanted to install solar panels in their own homes and communities.

We have the skills, we have the strength

Dozens of women have learned to install solar panels since 2018. One of the training programs is at Puerto Rico National Model Forest, a community governance organization that stewards an ecological footprint of around 390,000 cuerdas (378,000 acres) and has trained 51 women through its three-month course on solar panel installation.

These women, including Sánchez and Eva Campbell, are now working to inspire others and create business models to expand their efforts. They want to make this a viable profession for more Puerto Rican women and help low-income areas become more resilient against power grid failures.

An opportunity for growth

Despite Puerto Rico’s sunny Caribbean climate, its Electric Power Authority is currently more than 95% dependent on fossil fuels for its nearly 1.5 million customers, according to an analysis by the United States Energy Information Administration.

“We have renewable resources here like wind, sun, tidal power,” says Loraima Jaramillo, programs manager at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the Puerto Rico Solar Business Accelerator, projects that support community efforts to seek financing for solar energy projects.

But solar technology is expensive. Solar panels cost between $12,000 and $30,000 to install, Jaramillo says — and the installation and maintenance require significant expertise. It’s not an accessible price in Puerto Rico, where the average household income is $20,539 per year. Not all residents have the necessary conditions for them if, for example, they live in apartments or rented homes, Jaramillo says.

It’s a very hostile field, which requires a lot of physical strength

Nevertheless, the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act of 2019 states that 40% of the energy consumed must come from a renewable source by 2025, and 100% by 2050. According to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the percentage is currently less than 5%, through a scattered mix of solar, wind and hydroelectric initiatives.

This represents an opportunity for growth.

“We have the skills, we have the strength, and if we’re missing something, then we’ll figure out how to get it together,” Campbell says.

Roselyn M. Vélez Rodríguez, Hana Lynn, Yari Taína Rodríguez and Alanis Delgado work together to install 12 solar panels at Ángel G. Rivera Community School, which now serves as an agricultural school and emergency center.

Coraly Cruz Mejías/GPJ Puerto Rico

Women face lack of trust and machismo

But the women face challenges from every angle — bureaucratic, cultural, economic. The solar energy industry is young and male-dominated, with scarce full-time job opportunities, especially for people who have been trained but not officially certified.

“It’s a very hostile field, which requires a lot of physical strength and a lot of emotional strength — this perspective that women are weak, we are emotional, that we are less strong,” says Dariana Matei Ramos, community coordinator with the National Model Forest.

Even after being trained, the women’s solar panel installations must be supervised by an electrical engineer or an electrical surveyor, which makes it difficult for them to work independently and get hired.

There is also lack of trust from potential customers. Since 2018, close to 500 consumer complaints have been filed with the Puerto Rico Department of Consumer Affairs against solar panel installation companies, citing slow connections, incomplete installations, subpar materials and other issues.

It is not socially accepted

In October, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced that $300 million from the Puerto Rico Department of Housing’s Community Energy and Water Resilience Installations Program would be used to help people with limited resources transition to renewable energy. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated the funds as part of the Home Repair, Reconstruction or Relocation Program.

The women who have completed the solar energy training now see organizing as a top priority, to encourage others to pursue opportunities in industries traditionally dominated by men.

Basic classes alone are not enough for women to be able to work professionally in the solar energy industry, says Frances Berríos, president of the Colegio de Peritos Electricistas de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico College of Electrical Experts). Even more specialized training and fortitude are needed to face the challenges that may arise.

“People try to take you out of it because it is not socially accepted,” she says. “If someone has that interest, they discourage it.”

Some of the women are pursuing further studies and certifications, with the goal of forming their own corporations to demonstrate their expertise and become more competitive in the field.

“It’s not easy. There is machismo,” Sánchez says, “but you have to get cracking and start educating.”

Coraly Cruz Mejías is a Global Press Journal senior reporter based in Puerto Rico. Contact her on Twitter and Facebook or via email.

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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Ideas

My Debt To Russia, My Letter To Putin: A Very Personal Plea To End The War

Polish-born French writer Marek Halter, who fled the Nazis to the USSR, has known Vladimir Putin for 30 years. Halter sent the Russian president a long letter on May 18, and later shared a copy of it with Les Echos. In the letter, he lays out the path for Putin to renounce the war without undermining Russia's standing.

In his letter to Vladimir Putin, writer Marek Halter calls for the President to end the war.

Marek Halter*

Mr. President,

Vladimir Vladimirovich,

We have known each other for more than 30 years. Our first encounter dates back to the inauguration of the French University College of Saint Petersburg in 1992. This second French university in post-Communist Russia, the brainchild of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, opened a year after the one in Moscow. And it was commissioned to me by Anatoly Sobchak, then mayor of the “city of Tsars” of which you were the deputy mayor, through the intermediary of his counterpart, Jacques Chirac, who was then mayor of Paris before becoming President of France.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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You probably remember that day because we unexpectedly brought up your relation with the Jewish people. Because when I, as a Jew, was condemned by the Nazis to be turned into soap, it was the Russians who saved my life. This certainly explains my attachment to your country. We also mentioned my love for Russian literature and its characters who have undoubtedly marked those of my books: Natasha, Prince Bolkonsky, the Karamazov brothers, uncle Vanya…

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