The story of how a group of friends came together to make a large impact for an environmental school over three thousand miles from their hometown.
By Sphere Solar Energy – Puerto Rico/January 2022
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20,2017, as a deadly Category
4 storm, with 175 mph winds devastating the island’s electrical grid. Due to this catastrophe, the people of Puerto Rico were soon faced with widespread power outages.
Over three thousand miles away, Edwin Wanji, CEO and Founder of Sphere Solar Energy, was meeting with a couple of friends at Seattle’s Hellbent Brewery to discuss strategies for improving community energy resilience. While news of Hurricane Maria was broadcasting on a nearby television, Edwin and his group of friends found themselves horrified at the vulnerability of the besieged island left in darkness…
Edwin did not hesitate that evening as he instinctively offered assistance for the struggling island, from his union-signatory, clean energy and resilience-focused project development company, Sphere Solar Energy. Edwin’s friend, Mark Mendez, had family and many contacts in Puerto Rico. Jack, the owner of Hellbent, wanted to help as well. Hence, a partnership formed between Sphere Solar and a newly minted ‘Solarize Puerto Rico’ with Mark, Jack and a few key partners. At the time, Sphere Solar Energy was already a successful small business and Edwin was no stranger to donating his time and resources to underserved communities in Washington, or internationally in Haiti and his native Kenya. In fact, he only yearned to do it more.
Today, as Sphere Solar Energy and Sphere One (a separate, 501(c)3 non-profit organization) expand, they are stepping forward with vital and current energy solutions. The company provides their clients with smart energy services such as solar, storage, and energy efficiency upgrades. They also are deeply involved in community outreach through workforce training and educating youth and young adults.
As Edwin speaks of Sphere’s projects, and of Puerto Rico, his voice is level but his intense motivation and joy to be doing this work is contagious and palpable.
After some initial organization in Seattle, the friends and partners realized they needed a fact finding, site assessment trip to Puerto Rico to finalize their project goals and mission. They had succeeded at raising some funds and were attempting to define what project they could take on to help, and what scope it would be. Initially, they were in contact with a hospital and had intended to assist the struggling medical system, desperate for electrical power to help their sick and injured after the punishing storm. Alas, with the challenges of funding and the power demand of the hospital their fledgling organization needed more time, additional funding, and a smaller target to design.
Once on the ground in Puerto Rico, the team found their motivation rooted within the perfect prospect: Escuela Ecológica Niños Uniendo al Mundo, an environmental school specializing in Ecology in Caguas, Puerto Rico.
The weather in Puerto Rico was geographically ideal for solar, and as they met with the teachers, kids, and even local authorities, they found collaboration and synergy within the receptive community. It was then that Edwin could see the spark of something even greater; a chance to connect and to educate.
By doing this installation and presenting the technology to the kids, he just might shine a light on opportunities for future careers and facilitate the idea of solar as the future for clean energy solutions. As the visit continued, the partners learned from young students and teachers, the struggles the storm brought and that, for some, there had been no power for a full year. The Solarize Puerto Rico team finished up their visit to the school with a proposal to provide solar and battery storage. They also established the initial footwork to make the classrooms more energy efficient by providing and installing updated appliances, LED lights, and high efficiency ceiling fans.
Visiting the lush island and connecting with the locals Edwin was struck by how evident the need for solar was.
“The electrical grid is outdated, and it is obvious that the hurricanes will keep coming. So, energy resilience was a big aspect toward setting up these solar projects whereby if the grid is down again some of these communities will not be as impacted.” Once back in Seattle, the partners were fueled with energy, and delved into more fundraising and organization. For Edwin, this also involved the logistics of procuring equipment from suppliers and finding local contractors that could do the installations while he provided engineering support.
On September 28th, 2021, the project came to fruition as Edwin and his team, (which included a master electrician from Sphere Solar and a local solar contractor from Puerto Rico), proudly installed a 9-kWh solar array and 2 lithium-ion battery systems at the school.
The next day the children were treated to an educational training workshop experience which also consisted of a question-and-answer session. Edwin found this experience pivotal as the kids were engaged and jubilant, raising their hands with question after question. He realized in this moment, the endless possibilities in reaching younger generations on clean energy related demonstrations and discussions. He recognized that these children were very conscious of the need to protect their future environment and that seeing the installation firsthand had relayed an important message.
Perhaps this would provide the inspiration for them to pursue a career in the renewable energy sector? Perhaps these children were not just the branch but also the tree? The kids raised their hands high for still more questions, their faces pushed up toward the sun in keen interest. This was about their future. Their clean energy future.
Sphere Solar and Solarize Puerto Rico are planning additional solar projects in Puerto Rico, including education workshops, installation training, measurement, and verifications support, as well as system commissioning and grant application assistance. As the clean energy industry expands, so do the environmental challenges that threaten the reliability of our energy systems. Edwin Wanji, Sphere, and Solarize Puerto Rico are committed to scaling solutions to this problem, while lowering barriers for entry into the clean energy industry through dedicated workforce development training.