Why you should care

Because one YouTuber’s inspiration might change the way the country gets power in the future.

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, after an already destructive hurricane season, it wrecked the island. Months later, with a broken infrastructure, large areas of Puerto Rico remain without power. It’s a tragic situation that prompted a do-it-yourself guru on YouTube to act and help get some of the lights back on.

Jehu Garcia, who lives in California, makes DIY projects generally related to solar power and batteries — he’s known for his version of the Tesla Powerwall. He wanted to put his skills to use in a way that could help Puerto Rico, so he designed a cheap, portable solar generator, then posted a video with instructions on how to make it (the video now has more than 100,000 views). “The original idea was to build something that was small and quick to make so everyone here in the States could build it themselves and then send to someone in need in Puerto Rico,” says Garcia.

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Here’s how it works: A solar generator is what you need to get energy from solar panels — “essentially a battery in a box,” as Garcia puts it. In his original design, batteries and an inverter placed inside a plastic box are connected to a solar panel. The energy generated is then stored in the battery. This portable tool can power key equipment, such as fridges or medical appliances.

Garcia sees Puerto Rico as a laboratory for the future of energy.

Garcia called on his viewers to send the solar generators they built to Javier Camacho, a former business owner living near San Juan who had contacted Garcia and asked how he could help. Because making and shipping the generators was difficult for many viewers, they instead sent batteries, electric meters, cables and other equipment that volunteers in Puerto Rico could then assemble.

So far there have been 15 installations, with more planned in the coming weeks. Garcia says it is a bit hard to find people to help since they mainly work by word of mouth. Still, for Garcia and Camacho this all is part of a broader mission: to build a decentralized energy grid powered by renewables that is resilient in the face of disaster. “This is a matter of using our natural resources,” says Camacho. Garcia sees Puerto Rico as a laboratory for the future of energy. In the mainland U.S. going off-grid can be challenging, sometimes even illegal. In Puerto Rico, however, powering your own house has become possible because of the unusual situation.

For now the project is focused on short-term restoration of power, and the solar generator aims to do just that, but it could have long-term implications if it makes more Puerto Ricans switch over to renewables. “We could kick-start a future microgrid,” says Garcia. “A lot of destruction came from this storm. But I think good can come out of it as well if we recognize the opportunity that is there, and have people get power and be self-reliant.”

It’s a small initiative, but it comes at a time when large companies like Tesla are investing in solar on Puerto Rico and there is much discussion of rebuilding the island’s grid around renewables. A video about a solar generator, and some DIYers restoring energy house by house, might be a small contribution, but it’s one that is real for the people who are seeing their lights come on again.

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