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Harnessing Solar Power to Fuel Health Center Operations in Puerto Rico

04.29.2022Blog

The impact of climate change is being felt in many communities. However, the island of Puerto Rico is particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. In 2017, the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria and many communities are still grappling with the long-term damage, especially its fragile electrical grid. The Asociación de Salud Primaria de Puerto Rico (ASPPR), also known as the Puerto Rico Primary Care Association, haprioritized its strategic goals to support emergency preparedness in Puerto Rico’s community health centers.

Photo of health center staff after Hurricane Maria (ASPPR)

There are a total of  21 community health centers that provide services to the population through over 66 primary care clinics, mobile units, school-based health programs, and services for homeless individuals. In 2017, a total of 358,528 patients received care at health centers across 76% of municipalities, including the two neighboring island municipalities. ASPPR has been supporting health centers since 1984 by advocating for resources and policies to better serve Puerto Rican communities.

ASPPR has been concerned with climate change and its role in poor health outcomes amongst health center patients. As a PCA, we recognize that there is a need for strengthening the current infrastructure addressing current health challenges, and identifying future risks that threaten health center operational capacity and their patients’ health. ASPPR has proactively addressed the topic by assessing interest of health centers on increasing training and technical assistance activities on climate change and its impact on public health.

ASPPR has helped bridge the gap between relief organizations and the health centers, which has allowed the centers to enhance infrastructure and strengthen operational capacity. Moving forward, we are prioritizing deepening our understanding of climate change while educating our members and the community on the implications of immediate and future climate change on patient’s health and on the health centers’ infrastructure and workforce needs. Our goal is to secure stakeholder buy-in and identify resources to meet the programmatic and infrastructure needs of health centers.

One area of need that ASPPR was able to address was building infrastructure for renewable energy. Through external partnerships and funding, we were able to support health centers with acquiring solar panels in terms of equipment, installation, and technical assistance for maintenance. Our rationale to pursue solar-powered microgrids is based on the patient needs and health conditions, some of which require oxygen supplies, dialysis, or temperature-controlled medications. Additionally, we wanted to leverage the geographical advantage of PR being a tropical island with direct sunlight throughout the year. Finally, ASPPR wants to support health centers with cost savings from the solar energy panels, but to also maximize the potential of more homes and commercial buildings transitioning to solar power, thus allowing communities to be more resilient.

Photo: HealthProMed’s mobile unit with solar panels (HealthProMed/ASPPR)

As a result, over 70% of our health centers have at least one clinic with solar power energy. We have also developed a state-of-the art, interoperable radio communications systems (with equipment) that allows interconnectivity among the entire health center network and ASPPR. This is especially critical as we anticipate severe weather events becoming more frequent and powerful as a result of climate change.

Our team at ASPPR is excited by the progress we’ve made and our future efforts to support community health centers. We will continue to expand our understanding on this topic, create discussions around population health needs, continuously assess health center infrastructure needs, and gauge potential actions that health centers can take to proactively mitigate climate change by reducing their carbon emissions and transitioning to more sustainable operations.

Author: María C. Rodríguez, MS

Public Health Specialist La Asociación de Salud Primaria de Puerto Rico, Inc. (PR PCA)

Questions? Email the PRAPARE Team