Puerto Rico wants clean energy. Will the Biden administration listen?

In rebuilding the electric grid, FEMA should push to ditch fossil fuel infrastructure and shift to solar and batteries instead.

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Yesenia Rivera is director of energy diversity and inclusion at Solar United Neighbors. Ruth Santiago is a veteran attorney and environmental justice advocate and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. This guest essay represents the views of the authors, not those of Canary Media.

In Washington, the Biden-Harris administration is saying all the right things about quickly moving from a dirty-energy economy to a clean-energy economy. They say they want to do it in a way that is equitable for the communities — mostly low-income communities of color — that have long borne the brunt of fossil-fuel pollution and climate change’s destabilizing effects. 

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Their actions in Puerto Rico don’t match their rhetoric. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering spending at least $9.6 billion in U.S. taxpayer money to rebuild an energy system that relies on climate-damaging fossil fuels and centralized transmission. Those FEMA funds have been allocated to replace energy infrastructure destroyed in 2017 by hurricanes Maria and Irma. 

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a clean, equitable and resilient grid that will last for decades to come. FEMA should invest in rooftop solar and battery storage, a distributed energy system that can better withstand hurricanes. It should not waste money on more gas-fired plants or the transmission system that enables centralized fossil energy generation — a failed grid that would have to be rebuilt after the next major hurricane. (See New Orleans, where Hurricane Ida just took down the transmission and distribution lines that serve the whole city.)

If FEMA invests in rebuilding a dirty, outdated grid in Puerto Rico, it would be in direct opposition to the Biden-Harris administration’s climate and climate-justice goals. If it decides instead to build a modern energy system based on renewables, then Puerto Rico can serve as a model for the rest of the country. 

Moving forward after Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria forever changed the landscape of Puerto Rico. The storm and its aftermath killed more than 3,000 people, displaced more than 130,000 and left 1.5 million without power. It created the longest blackout in U.S. history, lasting up to 11 months in some areas. 

Last year, utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was ordered by regulator Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB) to increase the use of solar power and batteries to meet the territory’s future energy needs and to avoid investments that would expand its reliance on expensive imported oil, methane and coal that now generate about 98% of its energy. Puerto Ricans pay 44% more for residential electricity and 90% more for commercial electricity than the U.S. average.

But the PREB order, known as an integrated resource plan (IRP), still allows PREPA to continue operating the AES coal combustion power plant and convert oil-fired plants to burn methane, in opposition to Puerto Ricans’ demand to leave these fossil resources behind. The territory’s legislature voted on an overwhelming and bipartisan basis to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050, and community groups fought hard to enshrine the renewable mandates in PREPA’s existing IRP

Worse, a separate 10-year infrastructure plan approved by PREB earlier this year could allow PREPA to add hundreds of megawatts of new methane-fired power generation capacity to its mix, in contravention of the IRP’s limitations, along with infrastructure investments to perpetuate the centralized energy grid. Roughly $3 billion in projects have already been approved by PREB, and without action from FEMA to alter the course of these plans, billions more dollars may be locked in place by upcoming decisions this year. 

Most of Puerto Rico’s old fossil-fueled power plants are in the southern part of the island, where the population is poorer and where higher percentages of Afro Puerto Ricans live. Hurricane Maria took out transmission lines that ran from the south through the mountains and up to distribution centers in the north. Rebuilding this outdated power system would mean once again placing the health and safety burdens of hosting polluting power plants on those least able to protect themselves. 

Luma Energy — a recently created joint venture between Atco Canadian Utilities and Quanta Services, which successfully lobbied the Trump administration to privatize Puerto Rico’s energy grid — is making a challenging situation even worse. Since Luma’s takeover of the electric grid in June, Puerto Ricans have experienced longer service-restoration times, voltage fluctuations and poor customer service. 

Solar panels set up by Tesla Industries at a hospital in Vieques, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

We Want Sun! A clean vision for the future

Distributed solar and batteries could provide power that’s both lower in cost and more reliable. A 2020 study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that widespread residential rooftop solar — putting solar panels on rooftops across the island — would have the potential to generate four times as much power as Puerto Rico’s residential sector actually uses. And decentralized power generation is much more resilient to storms than big, centralized power plants and the interconnected transmission and distribution systems they require. 

This clean energy strategy dovetails with the Biden-Harris administration’s stated goals. Its Justice40 Initiative promises that at least 40% of federal climate and clean energy investments will benefit disadvantaged communities. Given that about 44% of Puerto Rico’s residents live below the poverty line, investing in rooftop solar, battery storage systems and similar clean alternatives is a great place to start delivering on this promise. 

Puerto Rican environmental experts, community activists and labor unions have developed a clean energy plan called Queremos SolWe Want Sun” in English. It shows that our legislature’s plan to go 100% renewable is 100% possible. 

Research conducted by the nonprofit groups Cambio and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis indicates that this approach would not only improve energy security for Puerto Rico residents but would cost less than PREPA’s plan as well. The study indicates that achieving 75% distributed renewable energy generation in 15 years is feasible with minimal upgrades to the distribution system. If built at scale, these community systems could also produce energy at a lower cost than centralized generation dependent on fuel shipped into liquefied natural gas terminals.

To achieve these distributed energy scales, however, we need strategic investments in energy efficiency, conservation, demand management and distributed renewable generation plus energy storage. The Queremos Sol plan lays out a host of policies in support of this goal, including a role for federal funding to prioritize such investments, as well as for FEMA to direct its funds to support decentralized renewable energy resources. 

We can no longer cling to fossil-fueled power. Nor should we prop it up with government dollars. Puerto Ricans have spent too many years paying too much for imported fossil fuels that contribute to the very climate crisis that is making hurricanes stronger. 

FEMA should encourage and facilitate participation by communities most heavily burdened by Puerto Rico’s centralized, fossil-fired electric system and listen to the majority of residents who want a cleaner, more resilient system. Puerto Rico now has the opportunity to serve as a model for transformation, and FEMA has the power to support this shift. We Want Sun! 

Yesenia Rivera is director of energy diversity and inclusion at Solar United Neighbors.

Ruth Santiago is a veteran attorney and environmental justice advocate and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.