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Forbes — Women At The Forefront Of Puerto Rico’s Energy Revolution

Climate Change & Disaster Recovery | 5 Minute Read

This originally appeared in Forbes in August 26, 2020.

Before launching the Puerto Rico-based energy development startup, Genmoji, all Vanessa Carballido knew about energy was how high her household’s Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) bill was on a monthly basis. Suffice to say, it was high.

At 22 to 27 cents per kilowatt hour, Puerto Rico residents pay higher electricity bills than households in any state of the United States. The average energy bill for a five-person household in Puerto Rico stands at $300.00. With 45% of the island’s population living below the poverty line and median household income standing at $19,343, the cost of energy isn’t only unlivable—it’s unjust.

Meanwhile, while PREPA serves 1.5 million customers, the agency is currently facing $9 billion in debt, and as of a week ago creditors are reportedly saying they’re ready to throw away the electric utility’s restructuring proposal. Adding salt to the wound, PREPA is the last power company in the U.S. to generate power from oil.

These stats and the calling to help create new economic opportunities for Puerto Rico led Vanessa to working with her husband and cofounder, Francisco Laboy, on renewable energy projects for commercial and industrial clients across the island.

When Affordable Energy Means A Stronger Economy (I Mean…When Does It Not?)

During Genmoji’s early days, Vanessa kept her day job as an intellectual property lawyer with a data management background, so she could pay the bills, while learning about energy law and technical aspects of the sector on the side. But after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, and the island-wide necessity for affordable access to energy became dire, she and Francisco jumped in without hesitation.

“To me, energy in Puerto Rico has been one of the key economic components in the development of the island that has not only been completely overlooked, but that the public itself has not adopted up until recently as critical to empowering the community for growth,” says Vanessa. “People here have long known about corruption and complained about different aspects. But up until a few years ago, nobody could even read their PREPA bill. I think Hurricane Maria changed that landscape because people saw that so many people were without power for a year. Some never got power back. It was like an awakening, and everyone said, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’”

When The Solution Is In The Problem

Given Puerto Rico’s natural resources and its critical need for evenly distributed energy, Vanessa sees the island as an ideal testing bed for renewable solutions. She recalled a moment when a friend visiting from Spain said, “‘You guys have sun. You have wind. How come I don’t see all the roofs covered in solar panels? How come I don’t see turbines like we see in Europe?”

“If we can change the way energy here is used and distributed, we could change Puerto Rico,” Vanessa declares. “It could change the way we do business—the way we attract companies. There are so many companies that don’t come here because of how expensive our energy is, how inefficient the system is.”

Since Genmoji launched, the company has attracted a number of energy consultants from California, who either want to test solutions or implement ideas they’ve learned elsewhere.

“To me that shows how much potential Puerto Rico has of becoming the testing ground for a new energy model that can be replicated and that incorporates resilience,” says Vanessa.

One variable that’s given Genmoji an edge in the renewable energy sector is AIRMOJI, its state-of-the-art magnetically driven-suspended wind turbine that utilizes natural wind and forced wind from industrial air conditioners and exhaust systems.

Using sensors to gather data and deploying AIRMOJI have been vital to to building Genmoji’s business during COVID-19, which has caused other renewable energy projects to shut down for the time being, including those of the Puerto Rico nonprofit Solar Libre, which has powered 130 community centers at no cost to the recipients.

In early January, students who participated in Solar Libre’s apprentice program worked as fast as humanly possible to assemble and distribute solar energy systems to camps for people displaced by the series of severe earthquakes, which damaged more than 8,000 houses.

When Women Are In Charge

Solar Libre field manager, Paola Pagnán, manages all of the the organization’s island projects. She says it’s the students in the apprentice program that push the initiative forward. In the first cohort, five women and three men participated. This may be a small ratio difference in gender, but it holds significance, considering that while women make up more than 50% of university students in most countries, they represent only 32% of the renewable energy industry, according to Women In Renewable Energy (WIRE) Network.

An initiative of the Clinton Global Initiative, WIRE is a professional development group for women working in energy in island nations across the Caribbean and Africa. The network has proven to be a tremendous resource for Vanessa and Genmoji in terms of access to technical data access and mentorship.

Intending to keep paying the momentum forward, Genmoji established a partnership with Solar Libre to ensure that the company works with at least three to four of the nonprofit’s apprentice program graduates on future Genmoji projects.

Like Vanessa, Paola didn’t always aspire to build a career in solar energy. When she first started working with Solar Libre she got into the field out of mere curiosity, but then saw the opportunity for more.

“Maybe my job would be easier at another company, but for me it’s so important to keep this project going because we’re making solar free for people who cannot pay for it, while they’re doing projects that are helping their communities,” says Paola.

This is yet another living example of what being in alignment with our purpose and with what lights us up can do for our community. When this happens all the bits and parts of our background that don’t seem to fit into the puzzle begin to fall into place.

“It’s funny the way life works because when we were doing licenses for the turbine I was able to use all my intellectual property background,” shares Vanessa. “So my legal background has complimented my work in energy perfectly.”