Four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, around 450,000 people still lack power, and the local electric utility–which is on track to run out of money by mid-February without a massive loan–is still struggling to rebuild the grid. A local wind farm has been ready to run since October, but the utility hasn’t let it power up. The same is true of a large solar farm. But smaller solar microgrids, relying on batteries rather than the grid, have been able to quickly provide power to critical locations including hospitals, schools, community centers, a water pumping station, and remote mountain communities.
These projects have been donated by companies like Tesla and Sonnen. To scale up to meet demand, though, more funding is needed. A group of pro athletes is hoping to rally fans to raise that money–and if the fundraising goes well enough, the money can also help with a longer-term rebuilding of the island’s electricity system.
“We were inspired by my buddy J.J. Watt,” says former NFL player Don Davey, who worked with Viktre, a social network for pro athletes and fans, to create the Viktre Challenge for Puerto Rico, the platform’s first crowdfunding cause campaign. “In a week, just by posting some videos, [J.J.] was able to raise $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston. We didn’t set any internal goals, but we said, that’s one guy–he’s obviously a very famous and well-known guy–but if there are 1,300 athletes on our platform, plus all our followers, certainly the potential exists that we could . . . raise a significant amount of money.”
From January 22 to February 22, a small group of athletes, including Winter Olympian Apolo Ohno and soccer players David Villa and Kaká, will serve as captains for teams that compete to try to raise the most money for restoring power in Puerto Rico. The money will go to the Foundation for Puerto Rico, a local nonprofit, which will coordinate with companies like Tesla to quickly install new projects. “It’s going to be an immediate impact,” says Alma Frontera, director of strategic projects and alliances for the foundation. “We’re looking at projects where the community is in urgent need.”
The systems can be installed quickly, says Davey, who visited the island to see some of the microgrids that Tesla has already installed. “They can come in and literally within six days they had the pumps turned back on for the freshwater supply for the entire island of Vieques,” he says. “Then six days later, they were able to put another installation in and get the hospital up and running.”
The cost varies dramatically by the size of a project, but a small system might cost around $40,000, while a larger system could cost $750,000 or more. While any money raised will go first to fill emergency needs, everyone involved hopes that funds can go further to help rebuild larger pieces of the grid with renewable energy.
Puerto Ricans pushing for a renewable grid hope to not only solve their immediate humanitarian crisis, but serve as an energy model for other parts of the world. “We’re a small island, and this is going to be such a great case study,” says Frontera. “This is not only about Puerto Rico. This is about what we will be able to show to the world, on this specific topic, what works. And what could be our future, moving forward, if we really want a more resilient and more effective lifestyle.”
Correction: This article has been updated to include the correct amount of money JJ Watt’s organization raised for Houston after Hurricane Harvey.