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On Puerto Rico’s Roofs, Renewable Energy Brings Employment for Women

A new program trains Puerto Rican women to build the very sustainable energy sources that will bring power and water to their communities.


Resilient Power

A Bosque Modelo trainee works on a solar installation. (Photo courtesy of Solar Responders)

When Raquel Robledo, a retired agronomist, was invited to participate in a training program on renewable energy, she jumped at the chance.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to get picked because of my age. I was aware that this was a program aimed at women entering the workforce and…I am happily retired,” she explained. But her 30 years of specializing in soil and water conservation made her an ideal candidate. “Capturing the sun’s energy was for me the next logical step; they didn’t have to convince me.” 

The Mesa Multisectorial del Bosque Modelo de Puerto Rico is a nonprofit organization focused on promoting sustainable development in Puerto Rico’s rural communities. Since 2019, they’ve been recruiting women from the communities they serve to learn the ropes of installing renewable energy systems.

Hurricane Maria’s destructive passage through Puerto Rico severely affected the island’s grid, leaving many communities without electricity. For communities that are not connected to Puerto Rico’s central water utility, and that rely on wells with electric pumps, the storm was a double blow, leaving them vulnerable to ongoing power and water outages.

Bosque Modelo worked alongside communities to improve their water quality, infrastructure, and energy capabilities as part of their strategy to promote resiliency and sustainability in the face of global climate change.

The goal wasn’t just to develop renewable energy and an uninterrupted water supply; the organization also wanted to create employment opportunities in the region.

“Like reading another language”   

In the last few years, the program has evolved, with a new focus on training women from local communities. Dariana Mattei, program coordinator for Bosque Modelo’s renewable energy project, has seen a “wide range of profiles”: young women, retired women and community leaders. She believes that the program has had a positive impact on them and their communities.

Mattei is a firm believer that women are instrumental in the fight against climate change. If “we want to have renewable energy by 2030 in Puerto Rico, collaboration with the communities, inclusiveness, and gender perspective” is important.  

Today, Bosque Modelo’s ecological footprint spans across 32 municipalities along the center, western and southwestern regions of the island.

They’ve had to contend with more than the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In 2020, Puerto Rico’s southern and western regions experienced a series of large-scale magnitude earthquakes that caused widespread structural damage, especially in the municipality of Guánica.  

Guánica’s Fire Station remained unscathed, but power outages were recurrent. As part of AbbVie’s $50 million donation to Direct Relief, a $277,000 grant was awarded to Solar Responders, a nonprofit organization, to install solar panels and battery storage systems at the station.  

Bosque Modelo trainees receive instruction at a solar installation site. (Photo courtesy of Solar Responders)

Direct Relief had previously funded Solar Responders to install solar panels on the Cataño EMS and fire station. But this new grant included stipends for 21 women from Bosque Modelo, who are interning at Solar Responder’s project sites in the Guánica and Ponce fire stations.  

Robledo is part of this cohort. Training included installation theory, maintenance and design, and at least 20 hours of practice at the stations under the supervision of the electrical engineer. At first, “it was like reading another language,” she laughed.  

“I went to the station three times a week to get as much practice as possible,” she recounted. Every time she was there, she climbed up the ladder to the roof to do her work.

“You can advocate for your community”

As part of this grant, both organizations will provide additional paid training to between six and 12 women graduates from the internship program. The training will teach them to conduct maintenance on Direct Relief’s solar storage systems, which are installed on Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) throughout Puerto Rico, and Solar Responder’s installations on fire stations.  

With this additional training, the goal is to register participants at Puerto Rico’s College of Electricians and certify them as Apprentice Electricians. The apprenticeship requires them to work under the supervision of an experienced electrician, but Hunter Johansson, CEO and Founder of Solar Responders, believes that this is a move toward empowering Puerto Rican women to care and stand up for their communities.

“It is going to require more training. [But] This is the first step in a long-term investment. When you are informed about a trade like this, you can advocate for your community to protect it, and it shows women that they can do this,” Johansson said.  

In Puerto Rico, as La Perla del Sur reported, there are 5,390 expert electricians, only 21 of whom are women.  

“I am used to working in male-dominated environments. [This program] I think is fabulous,” Robledo, the retired agronomist, said. 

For Johansson, this is a call to action: “Inclusiveness builds long-term success and recovery. It helps communities thrive,” he said.

Giving is Good Medicine

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