Biden admin seeks $3B to fund rooftop solar+batteries in Puerto Rico

Geared toward low-income households, the federal funding could help avert future blackouts, but some question whether they’ll ever see the money.

An overhead view of a Puerto Rican business establishment's roof that is covered in solar panels
Households and businesses in Puerto Rico are installing solar panels to reduce their reliance on the electric grid. (Ricardo Arduengo/Honnold Foundation)
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This article was originally published by Grist.

Puerto Rico could get $3 billion for rooftop solar energy and battery storage if Congress approves a Biden administration request made late last month. The help is sorely needed. 

The archipelago has been repeatedly hit by blackouts after a series of devastating hurricanes caused severe damage to the electricity grid. In 2017, Hurricane Irma, which narrowly missed the main island but caused widespread blackouts, was followed by another — Maria — that killed over 4,000 people. Maria’s damage to Puerto Rico’s grid was so debilitating that it took 11 months for power to be fully restored to the main island. 

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Both Puerto Rican activists and U.S. officials believe that investing in solar energy systems will help residents keep the power on in their homes during what is certain to be more frequent and destructive storms in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico’s energy grid has been criticized for years for its unreliability under normal circumstances, even without the storm damage to power lines and generators.

While a growing number of Puerto Rican households are taking the initiative to install solar panels on their rooftops, the majority of households continue to rely on electricity from the central power grid or that they generate themselves by running diesel-powered generators. Generators, however, are expensive and pollute the air. 

But high costs and environmental considerations are only part of the picture. Electricity blackouts in Puerto Rico in the wake of tropical storms have exacerbated the already devastating public health and safety crises that followed. Researchers have estimated that in the three months after Hurricane Maria, there was a 62 percent increase in mortality.

Many deaths following the hurricane occurred in isolated and mountainous regions where residents were unable to access water and medical facilities. But the lack of electricity at home may have been the biggest factor in the high mortality, as residents were unable to boil water, refrigerate food and certain medicines, or run air-conditioning in their houses.

After Hurricane Fiona hit in September 2022, residents who had installed solar panels and batteries on their homes were able to maintain their power even as the energy grid failed yet again. In spite of this, most households in Puerto Rico simply cannot afford to switch to solar without financial assistance offered by the federal government. The majority of census tracts in Puerto Rico are categorized as disadvantaged, frequently due to high local energy costs coupled with low household incomes. Puerto Ricans as a whole pay some of the highest energy bills in the United States.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, the average cost to install solar panels for a household is nearly $12,000. While that’s less than what the average household on the U.S. mainland would have to pay for home solar, the cost is too much for most Puerto Ricans; the territory’s median household income is around $21,000.

Before Hurricane Maria in 2017, household adoption of solar energy in Puerto Rico appeared to be more motivated by reducing electricity bills. Now, simply being able to turn on the lights has become just as strong a motivation. The archipelago is also considered a favorable location for widespread solar power adoption.

A preliminary 2021 study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a consortium of other national laboratories concluded that transitioning to rooftop solar energy could produce more energy than Puerto Rico currently consumes annually. This potential is largely due to the territory’s high level of exposure to sunlight throughout the year. 

While some Puerto Ricans may acknowledge the value of allocating financial resources to rooftop solar energy, others are not convinced that relying on federal funds will lead to any fundamental changes on the ground. 

Since Maria, the U.S. government has made many allocations of funds that never arrive, or their impacts are not seen in Puerto Rico,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, the executive director of Casa Pueblo, a Puerto Rican organization that supports community self-management projects.

Instead, Massol Deyá said, Casa Pueblo and other organizations are working to develop an independent electricity grid centered on solar energy projects that are run for and by local communities in Puerto Rico. 

We’re working to break the dependency model,” he said. 

Brett Marsh is an Environmental Justice Fellow at Grist.