Engineers without Borders in
Bringing Light to Darkness
|Clockwise from upper left: Hogar Albergue para Niños
Jesús de Nazaret, the orphanage Engineers without
Borders is working with; a devastated solar energy
field in Puert Rico after Hurricane Maria; A house with
a plastic tarp protecting a home that lost its roof in
Hurricane Maria, a common sight on the island,
Professor Jim Tinjum
One of the selected projects is a joint project of UW-Madison’s Engineers without Borders and engineering professors at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez
where the Hogar Albergue para Niños Jesús de Nazaret orphanage is located. Their project is called Solar por Niños.
“Their mission is to take on children who have been removed from their homes by the Department of Families because of, unfortunately, physical or sexual abuse,”
Tinjum said. “They are a facility that is licensed to handle 14 children. Currently they had three infants and 11 other children up to age 11. Basically what they do is
counseling, education and full boarding living services while they bring those children back into society. Unlike here in the mainland of the United States, the
government of Puerto Rico is essentially bankrupt and then some. So they have limited to no support from the government. All of their funds are coming from
organizations like Engineers without Borders and individual donations to allow this non-profit to succeed.”
Engineers without Borders and their Puerto Rican counterparts are going to install solar energy at the home, a gift that will keep on giving.
“Assuming that they have electricity — and they don’t always have electricity because it comes and goes — their electricity bill is upwards of $1,000 per month,”
Tinjum said. “Puerto Rico has the highest electricity rates in the United States, higher than Hawaii and anyone else. 98 percent of the electricity in Puerto Rico comes
from imported fossil fuels: natural gas, coal and oil. Other than being very expensive and not sustainable in the world that we are moving towards, they are bypassing
this beautiful resource that they have. Being at 18 degrees north latitude, they have some really good solar resources. When I was on my bike trip around the upper
Midwest, if Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois can make solar energy economical at 45 degrees north, there is no reason that an island such as Puerto Rico can be
much more integrated into using their domestic solar resources on the island. Our goal is to basically eliminate that $1,000 per month bill with a more reliable,
sustainable and resilient means so that they can put that $1,000 per month into other services like counseling and education for the children and paying their
counseling and support staff. It’s a better means of using their limited resources other than paying an astronomical electricity bill.”
The solar energy project is being installed in three phases.
“The first is energy efficiency appliances and electrical code upgrades, just basically to get the home ready for solar electricity that is up to code and safe and
reliable,” Tinjum said. “The second phase is getting one of their three buildings ready for solar. It means putting solar panels on the roof and the control systems and
the electronics inside that storage building. And then the third phase is the final two buildings, outfitting them with solar panels. And at the end of that third phase, they
should be net neutral on energy produced and consumed at that home.”
The project isn’t going to be completed overnight.
“We are wrapping up the first phase of the fundraising that was fairly successful,” Tinjum said. “We have a little ways to go. The on-island group raised $25,000 for
this project through the First Lady Fund on the island. And I believe we have about $67,000 committed to the project on our part so far. So we have $92,000 and as I
said, our estimate for the first three phases is $115,000. We’re close with $23,000 left to go. I’m in contact with a few additional solar suppliers about material
donations to the project that could swing it to right where we need it over the next few months. The students will do the design this fall. We hope to have the energy
efficiency and electrical code upgrades commenced this fall. The students are targeting approximately the last week or so of December for a site visit to interview
contractors on the island who would do the physical installation of the panels. And if all goes well, we may be looking at installation around spring break of next year
for that first phase of solar. It may take us a couple of years to complete the project.”
Energy has been a real community builder on the island since the hurricane knocked out Puerto Rico’s energy grid.
“I met a professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez through my fiancé,” Tinjum said. “He said that their little neighborhood community really got together
because one person on the block had a generator. Basically that person was kind enough to run five power cords out to the neighbors so that each one could run their
refrigerator. They didn’t have lights and things like that, but at least they were able to store some perishable goods because of that one person who had a generator.
And he got to know his neighbors so much better because they started doing communal cooking. One person would cook the evening meal one night and they would
rotate around and everyone would come to that one place for that evening meal.”
Once these three phases are completed, Engineers without Borders may install a battery back-up system.
“That would help them into the evening and possibly even give them the capacity to sell some back into the grid because of the net metering policy in Puerto Rico,”
Tinjum said. “Given where we are going, there is even an opportunity where they could get income on a monthly basis, depending on how far we can go with
installation and fundraising.”
And depending on the resources, the Engineers without Borders may expand the project.
“Engineers without Borders isn’t a flash-in-the-pan kind of organization,” Tinjum emphasized.
“A longer-term vision is there is another organization — basically across the parking lot — that is a day center for children with spina bifida and other muscular-
skeletal diseases. A future phase of the project might be to integrate the solar at this site and also distribute energy into that block to also help that other non-profit. I
believe that Engineers without Borders will be in this community for at least another two years, continuing to help that and expand what they can do for that center.
Part of the goal is training the staff of the home how to maintain the solar equipment. In addition, we really have a vision to have this be a model project where we
can publicize this and show other Engineers without Borders chapters or other non-profit community centers how to do a solar installation. We are really visioning
this to be a model project to again show other organizations, ‘You can do this. This is the economic payback. This is what you need to raise. This is the design
process that you have to go through.’ That’s the larger vision for this project. We hope it can be replicated over and over again in Puerto Rico, Honduras or wherever
Engineers without Borders and other organizations go.”
Tinjum believed in this project so much that he went on a 1,300 mile bike trip this summer to raise awareness and funds for Solar por Niños.
By Jonathan Gramling
When Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico in September 2017, Madison’s Puerto Rican
community formed the Puerto Rico Relief Fund and jumped to the aid of their home. They collected basic goods
that they had shipped to the island in the immediate aftermath and then raised close to $100,000 for projects on
the island that would have a long-term impact and low overhead. Members of the fund went to the island and
scouted out prospective projects, invited organizations to apply for the fund and then made decisions on the
Puerto Rico is still trying to recover from the devastation.
“I went back to the island about eight months post hurricane,” said Professor Jim Tinjum, a UW-Madison
engineering professor and member of Engineers without Borders. “And while the larger cities such as San
Juan and Mayaguez largely looked like they were mostly recovered, up in the mountains, it was a different
story. The mountains are much poorer regions. The housing is less resilient. You have a lot of those zinc-plated
tin roofs that cannot withstand a hurricane. The houses that had the concrete roofs that were of a good solid
construction did okay. But with a lot of the poorer housing stock with the cheaper roofs, what you could see
was blue tarp after blue tarp after blue tarp after blue tarp meaning that people basically had plastic for a roof
eight months after the hurricane. There was also the massive flooding that occurred. In talking to some of the
mayors in those internal mountain towns, their largest damage wasn’t necessarily wind related. It was more
because of the flooding, just torrential downpours and related mud inundation of the vegetation and the wind.
One of the hotels that had just reopened that I stayed at in the center of the island, they said they basically had
bulldozers working for a month to clear all of the mud out of the bottom of the river valley where this hotel was
“I say 2,000 kilometers because it sounds better,” Tinjum said with a
chuckle. “I started in Madison and went south into Illinois, as far
south as Grand Ridge, Illinois. It’s southwest of the Chicago suburbs.
I then went due west to Iowa and hit Davenport and Dubuque, Iowa. I
went back into southwest Wisconsin up through Boscobel, crossing
the Wisconsin River and then crossed into Minnesota at La Crosse. I
went up to Rochester and looped around the Twin Cities and crossed
into Wisconsin at St. Croix Falls and then went south back to
Madison. It was an awareness campaign. It was called #bikethesun.
I was having interviews such as this along the way. I was just
raising awareness that help is still needed in Puerto Rico post-
hurricane. They still haven’t recovered. I visited solar energy sites in
general to show the beginnings of what is more and more to come
across the United States and the upper Midwest as solar energy
becomes more economical and widespread. It’s coming.”
Hurricane Maria brought untold hardship to Puerto Rico, killing almost
3,000 people and setting the island back decades. But sometimes in
the darkness, new light can be shed on decades old problems.
Puerto Rico’s electrical grid has been in disrepair for years. Perhaps
projects like Solar por Niños will begin an energy movement in
Puerto Rico that will bring more affordable and sustainable electricity
to the island. Lemonade out of lemons.
For more information about Solar por Niños, visit https: