Two years after Hurricane Maria roared into Puerto Rico, memories of its devastation and aftermath remain fresh in Chelsea’s Puerto Rican community. Some were there during the storm and endured the 11-month blackout that followed. Others experienced it from Chelsea, through the accounts of loved ones on the island.
The experience has driven people in Chelsea to embrace an experimental power project that would create a miniature backup electrical grid. The idea is to prevent the city from experiencing what took place in Puerto Rico.
“It was chaos,” said Chelsea resident Alexandria Christmas, recalling bleak communications from family members in Puerto Rico following Maria. “You [could not] drive at night; there was no electricity for stop lights.”
The so-called microgrid, which is still in the planning stage, would connect key buildings where residents might gather in the event of a natural disaster. The buildings would share power stored in batteries charged by solar power. City Hall has tentatively signed on to become a host for a pilot program, and the project’s organizers hope to expand to other institutions, like Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and public housing.
The Chelsea project is part of a complex statewide effort to introduce microgrids to Massachusetts. A group called RUN-GJC is nearing completion of a study on the feasibility of the networks. It’s a coalition of energy industry professionals, scientists, community leaders and organizers, activists, and developers.
It may be difficult to imagine, but a power loss on the scale of what Puerto Rico endured in 2017 is possible in Massachusetts — and throughout the United States — according to the designers of the project.
“The architecture of our electric grid is the same in the US as it is in Puerto Rico,”said Dave Dayton of Clean Energy Solutions, a renewable energy consulting firm handling the technical design of the project. “The recovery is quicker here, because we have the infrastructure and the wealth and organizations to respond quickly,” Dayton said. “But the vulnerability is really the same. We still have basically a centralized system of power generation and distribution.”
The coalition’s members have a common goal, but different reasons for participating. For renewable energy experts working on the project without compensation, the grid is a passion project. For activists behind an offshoot in Chinatown, the project dovetails with local progressive values. In the case of Chelsea, residents who lived through Puerto Rico’s long blackout want to avoid repeating the past.
“If something like that were to happen in Massachusetts, and it was January or February . . . how are elderly people going to survive in a building that has no heating capacity?” said Sylvia Ramirez, a Puerto Rican transplant who visited the island in 2017 after the hurricane to help her family.
Ramirez was shocked by the condition of her coastal hometown, Arecibo. A familiar gas station had its roof ripped off. Power lines were strung across highways. Trees were bent in the direction the wind had blown them, in a way that reminded her of a hand changing the pattern of fibers in a carpet. But the thing that struck her the most was how hard it was to get a glass of cold water in the sweltering heat.
With no power for air conditioning or refrigeration, she and her family camped out overnight for rationed bags of ice.
“We took turns sleeping in the car so we could all make the line the next morning, because they opened at eight o’clock in the morning,” she said.
Living through the island’s blackout drove home the importance of maintaining power for Ramirez and other Puerto Ricans in Chelsea. When the local environmental group GreenRoots polled community members at an event to see what issues were highest priority to them, they were surprised to find the microgrid project — something the organization was only marginally involved in – was near the top of many people’s lists.
“Honestly, we were all shocked,” said María Belén Power of GreenRoots. “It’s such a wonky technical project.”
GreenRoots is now the main organizer of the Chelsea branch of the project. Through the group’s long-term relationships with city institutions, the study has caught the attention of important people at places like City Hall.
“We wholeheartedly jumped on board on the feasibility study,” said Chelsea’s Department of Public Works commissioner, Fidel Maltez. “We have signed on to the idea, to the concept, of being the first community-organized microgrid.”
But Maltez made it clear such an endeavor would require financial support the small city cannot provide on its own.
“But I know that in conversations with a few of those counselors, they are excited and supportive of the work,” Maltez said. “We have to review the feasibility studies and see what actual funding opportunities are out there for implementation.”
For proponents, the project is a necessity.
“People take for granted how much we use certain things,” Ramirez said, “like having clean water and being able to drink a cold glass of water . . . I think it’s important to have a plan B.”