Jonathan Marvel moved to New York some 30 years ago, but he was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where his late father had an architectural practice and where he still has deep roots, now running the office there as part of his New York–based Marvel Architects. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria pulverized the Caribbean in summer 2017, Marvel and several others with close ties to Puerto Rico quickly mobilized, forming a group called Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR) in an effort to connect community centers around the island to solar power arrays.
RPPR initially aimed to bring solar power to 100 sites in 100 days, but limited resources—namely, a lack of access to the necessary equipment—has hindered their progress; Marvel anticipates having 25 sites up and running by the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria.
He spoke to RECORD about RPPR’s broader goals.
How has RPPR changed since you and Cristina Roig-Morris first founded it?
Initially we installed solar hubs as our one act of humanitarian lift. Now we’re realizing that it’s much more than just installing panels—it’s educating and training people, it’s creating the workforce, it’s reaching out to people who don’t know how valuable renewable energy is to their communities.
So, we have formalized ourselves as a 501(c)(3), and we’re renting a warehouse in the small inland city of Caguas that we’ll use as an office, workshop, and educational venue for people to come and learn about solar. We’re going to put 100 panels of our own on top of the warehouse so we can be off the grid, and we can offer that as a prototype. We want to hire three to five employees in our new office warehouse. This is a decades-long commitment to Puerto Rico, not just a one-off adventure.
And what prompted this shift in your mission?
We realized this wasn’t all going to happen as fast as we had hoped. The island doesn’t have enough of a retail solar infrastructure; it’s hard to buy batteries and panels, because there’s very limited availability, and you have to wait in long lines. Ideally, we’d work out a way to buy wholesale and bring in our own equipment. Also, the island doesn’t have a large workforce just ready to go. Stepping up the rollout the way we had planned was not going to happen; it’s more like 100 installations in 100 weeks, not 100 days. While we’re doing those installations, though, we’re not just sitting idle—we’re spreading our efforts around to different operations.
How do you expect the arrays you’ve installed to fare during this next hurricane season?
That’s the big question—they are exposed on rooftops and very vulnerable during a storm. We took a look at the systems that survived last year and determined the best ways to build them. For instance, you upgrade the diameter of bolts from ¼ inch to ⅜ inch, you use a certain kind of racking system, you build a small parapet or knee wall around the panels: those are the primary lessons we learned.
Does your work in Puerto Rico speak to a larger issue?
The larger issue for us is that so-called natural disasters due to global-warming trends and rising sea levels are really man-made— they’re something we’re aiding and abetting as a species, and underserved communities are the most vulnerable. So translating what we’re doing from solar-energy hubs to a larger message, we want people to shelter in place. The human species is community-driven, and sheltering in place within the community where you live is a human right.