Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in less than a day, but its impact will be felt for years to come. Two weeks before Maria, Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma. The island’s fragile power grid was running on fumes, unable to absorb a surplus of power or excess voltage. The Category 4 storm tore through the island’s power grid which left 3.4 million American citizens in the dark. To shed light on the damage and the island’s path to recovery, Alcen Renewable’s COO Tao Kong went to Puerto Rico to learn more about the situation and how we could support the community.

Much of Puerto Rico was left without power. Transmission lines toppled, power poles snapped in half, and distribution systems collapsed. About 80% of Puerto Rico’s power grid was fractured, leaving millions of people with no electricity, internet, or clean water. Tao spoke to Eric, a resident living in Carolina, east of San Juan. When Tao asked when citizens could expect to have electricity again, Eric didn’t bat an eye. “There’s no word when power will be back on for the rest of Puerto Rico.”

Thankfully, power was restored to those living in urban areas within weeks. Hospitals, malls, and relief centers were operational but prone to frequent outages. However, those in rural areas were left without power until the grid could be repaired. FEMA’s timetable proposing that 95% of the grid would be back online was, according to Eric, inaccurate.

PREPA’s goal was to get electricity back to citizens as soon as possible, meaning much of the repairs were rushed and will have to be redone. Before Hurricane Irma and Maria, power lines were already tattered and poorly maintained. Unable to replace them, frayed cables were woven through trees and secured on trunks – violations that only increase the grid’s vulnerability.

As Eric informed us, Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure was held together by antiquated materials that are simply not manufactured anymore. Parts needed to restore the grid not only had to be imported but made. Hundreds of FEMA contractors and engineers from the U.S. Army Corps were on the ground within a matter of weeks, but since they did not have the materials on hand to repair the grid, they – much like the hundreds upon thousands of citizens in the dark – had nothing to do but wait. Shops and restaurants provided some reprieve by setting up makeshift phone-charging stations for public use. Elsewhere, schools and local businesses closed their doors indefinitely.

As Tao went around the cities, the team spent time moving trees, cleaning up trash, and offering general support to the community. From the Hurricane, there was a large build-up of debris, both dangerous to the environment and to the communities. The amount of trash collected from wreckages was more than “736,000 cubic yards of debris — the equivalent of 61,000 truckloads.” Though power was fully restored to Puerto Rico in August, a herculean effort that took 11 months and $3 billion to accomplish, the efforts to clean up the cities are ongoing.

Tao left Puerto Rico with a greater sense of urgency towards our efforts here at Alcen. The alarming frequency of these storms brought on by climate change will pose ongoing threats for communities like Puerto Rico. Luckily, there is no shortage of creative minds to provide alternative solutions. Puerto Rico is now embracing microgrids and renewable energy distribution in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It is both a necessary change and a new beginning. The role of clean energy is crucial now more than ever – an initiative that will keep communities bright, efficient, and sustaining for storms to come.