Professional rock climber Alex Honnold was living simply, frugally and sustainably in his van so he could climb all over the US and the world, when he founded the Honnold Foundation in 2012. But his reputation, as GQ magazine pointed out in 2015, is larger than life.
“He’s mostly known for big, death-defying wall climbs,” it said. “He completed the first solo climbs of University Wall at Squamish, finished the Yosemite Triple Crown (setting a speed record of 18 hours and 50 minutes), and became the second person in 20 years to complete a free solo climb of Astroman and Rostrum (also in Yosemite Valley) in one day. What makes these accomplishments especially fraught is that they’re often accomplished without partners, ropes, or any of the other accessories that would identify someone as sane.”
He has been aware of his ecological footprint for a long time. “His van is equipped with a small stove and no fridge, so dinner is built around things he can make in one pot. (Not having a fridge has also taught him that you can get away without refrigerating most things.)” His van is customized with solar panels. And his foundation says that “we believe that small, deliberate steps can help us achieve audacious goals, and we’re here to build a brighter and more equitable world for everyone.”
And you can see the power of that belief now in a remote area of Puerto RIco, where since 2019, the Honnold Foundation has worked alongside the local Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas to co-create Puerto Rico’s first cooperatively managed, community powered solar microgrid, donating about $2 million as well as its time and expertise.
Casa Pueblo used to own the only building in Adjuntas equipped with solar panels that could meet the community’s needs during a power outage. Now, the microgrid will expand residents’ access to off-grid electricity, giving them the ability to refrigerate food and medicine, charge electronic devices, and more.
“It’ll do the kind of things that really help communities keep together during power outages and natural disasters,” said Kate Trujillo, the Honnold Foundation’s deputy director. “It’s a beacon of light, both figuratively and literally, in times of need.”
The nonprofit Community Solar Energy Association of Adjuntas (ACESA), led by the local business association, will own, maintain and manage the 1,000 solar panels powering 17 small businesses in the town center and will sell electricity to the commonwealth’s grid through a power purchase agreement.
Small businesses will pay for their electricity at a fraction of the former cost, and, after funds are set aside for the microgrid’s operation and maintenance, the rest will be allocated towards future community solar projects. The batteries can provide enough off-grid electricity to keep the downtown businesses operating for up to 10 days, serving as community hubs in case of an extended power outage.
Residents of Puerto Rico pay more than double the US average electricity rate for the least reliable electrical system in the US, explains Time. Most of the power (97%) comes from centralized fossil fuel power plants, largely in the southern part of the island, which burn coal and natural gas imported from the US mainland.
Community groups are celebrating the installation of a network of solar panels and battery storage units to provide off-grid electricity to businesses in Adjuntas’ central plaza. Ricardo Arduengo, Grist
Knowing that it means that they won’t be left without electricity for long periods, as has happened when two previous hurricanes devastated the Puerto Rican grid and power distribution system, the 17,600 townspeople in Adjuntas celebrated their microgrid’s arrival with “Marcha del Sol” – flags and placards, whistles and drums, and stilt walkers.
“This is a first-of-its-kind project,” said Trujillo. “It’s amazing to see it all coalescing.”
It took time to raise funds for the system’s many components and figure out how to transport them up the mountain into town. COVID-related supply chain disruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes interrupted progress.
“We’ve gone through a lot, … but we knew it was the right way to go,” said Arturo Massol-Deyá, Casa Pueblo’s executive director and a 2019 Grist 50 honoree. He said it was difficult navigating a complex system of landlords, business owners, and other stakeholders to sort out how the microgrid would work and who would operate it.
“What we are doing with the microgrid is a reference for what can and should be done in other municipalities in Puerto Rico,” Massol-Deyá told Grist. “We can change our energy system, it can be done — we have shown that it can be done.”
And that belief is influencing others. “We’ve discovered that there’s been a huge grassroots movement at the community level,” says Agustín Carbó, director of the US Department of Energy’s Puerto Rico grid modernization and recovery team. Last month, the Energy Department said it was particularly interested in rooftop solar projects and “community and critical service energy resilience,” which may include community microgrids like the one in Adjuntas, Time reported. “In five years, we will have a completely different society, with more reliable energy and much more resilient in terms of the impacts of future hurricanes,” Carbó says.
“I think we are at the beginning of a wave of microgrid transformation,” says Cynthia Arellano, a program manager at the Honnold Foundation. “In Puerto Rico, it makes a lot of sense.”
And not just in Puerto Rico.
As hurricanes and other climate-related natural disasters grow more destructive, many communities across the U.S. are turning to microgrids, says Grist. One report published in 2021 said the cumulative capacity of such systems could more than triple by 2030, creating almost half a million jobs nationwide and billions of dollars in economic activity.
In Puerto Rico, a Small Town Takes Climate Action Into Its Own Hands. Time, Mar. 20, 2023
Adjuntas: A Solar Community. Honnold Foundation.
Puerto Rico town celebrates ‘first-of-its-kind’ solar microgrid. Grist, Mar. 16, 2023
Cover image: Peter Walle, Honnold Foundation