Puerto Rico Has Big Plans For Renewables, But Can It Deliver?
Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was already woefully under-invested in and poorly maintained when the category 4 Hurricane Maria crashed into the island in September, 2017. The fallout from the storm was enormous, with thousands of casualties and immeasurable damage to the island’s infrastructure. The power grid was almost completely destroyed. The devastation triggered the longest and most sweeping blackout in all of United States history, and the majority of the approximately 3,000 people who died from the storm didn’t die from the hurricane itself, but from issues relating to the lack of electricity powering hospitals and other essential services.
The United States island territory was still struggling to bring its grid back up to speed when Hurricane Fiona hit in September of 2022, almost 5 years to the day after Hurricane Maria made landfall. Now, intermittent access to electricity is the norm in Puerto Rico. Even on the mildest of days, Puerto Ricans have learned not to rely on the grid. Despite the grid’s poor service, Puerto Ricans have had to endure seven increases in electricity prices over the last year. Puerto Ricans already pay about twice as much for power as mainland U.S. customers, while earning about 43% less in wages on average.
Civil unrest has been mounting in Puerto Rico in response to the mounting electricity problems and runaway prices, and locals have been ramping up pressure on LUMA, the organization that runs the grid, to make some major changes. The private contractor has earned itself a spotty reputation since it took over grid operations in 2021, and has been harshly criticized for mismanaging the billions of dollars in federal aid that have been earmarked for repairing and rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid.
For many, the failure of the traditional grid system in Puerto Rico points to the fact that it is high time to transition over to renewable energy on the island. The idea has been percolating for a while now, with studies showing that a grid based on decentralized renewable energy would be far more resilient to future hurricanes, and cheaper and more reliable for Puerto Ricans on the whole. And when it comes to preparing for the next storm, there’s no time to waste.
Last year, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) released a Puerto Rico 100% Renewable Energy and Resilience Study, which maps out a more hurricane-resilient and climate-friendly energy sector by 2050. This outline builds on Puerto Rico’s own local policy ambitions to reach 40% renewable energy by 2025. But the next major hurricane will happen much, much sooner than that. As Vox reported last September, in spite of the DOE’s best efforts and FEMA’s funds, “the same hurdles that left the grid in a fragile state still remain: sluggish bureaucracy, poor management, underinvestment, and the inherent difficulty of delivering power on an island.”
While the government has been extremely slow to act, they have plans to put the billions of dollars of federal funding they have received toward building out renewable energy and climate-proofing the grid. $1.1 billion in federal housing funds granted after Hurricane Maria will be primarily used to install solar panels and batteries in 30,000 low- and medium-income homes, and another $1.3 billion will be used to develop microgrids. Another $1 billion approved by Congress in December will provide “additional funding to install rooftop solar and battery storage systems in 40,000 homes in the most impoverished, low-income communities on the island.”
But Puerto Ricans are tired of waiting. Some islanders are taking the issue into their own hands. According to reporting this month from NBC, “more than 45,000 rooftop solar systems have been interconnected into Puerto Rico's electric grid over the past two years, more than in the previous decade.” According to Ingrid Vila, the president of CAMBIO PR, a nonprofit group helping promote and subsidize residential solar panels, the Puerto Rican government has tried to spin this "as its own achievement that many individuals have made the transition to renewables, when in reality it was something they did on their own." Puerto Ricans have learned that if the rely on the government to fix the grid before the next big storm, they might die waiting.
Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the Bay Area, and music/culture reviews.
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