Why Puerto Rican communities are all-in on solar microgrids

Advocates say the island’s goal to reach 100% renewable energy should be met through a community-led, decentralized approach.
By Carolina Baldin

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Solar panels on poles jutting up at many different angles behind a sign that says Bosque Solar and an arrow pointing right
Part of Casa Pueblo's Bosque Solar installation in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico (Solar United Neighbors)

This story was first published by Energy News Network.

Editor’s note: Interviews with Alexis Massol González, Alberto Colón and Rómulo Ortiz were conducted in Spanish. Their quotations and those from the Energy Bureau hearings were translated into English by reporter Carolina Baldin. 

The U.S. Department of Energy has committed $1 billion to develop solar energy in Puerto Rico, to help the island meet its goal of 100% renewables and to add resilience to a system plagued by hurricane damage, poor maintenance and debilitating blackouts. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has visited the island multiple times, and the department has promised additional funding for renewables once an in-depth study is completed.

Community leaders who have long pushed for solar are hopeful. But they are adamant that the funding must prioritize community-driven, decentralized rooftop solar. They don’t want to see more solar farms, which they say can damage land and continue reliance on shipping power across the island, and they are skeptical of the role of Luma, the company that runs Puerto Rico’s grid since it was privatized in June 2021.

On March 18, Casa Pueblo, a prominent community organization in the mountain town of Adjuntas, inaugurated Adjuntas Pueblo Solar, an independent solar project that will supply 20 businesses with solar energy. The inauguration coincided with Casa Pueblo’s Marcha del Sol: Puerto Rico Triunfa festival, where residents and national and international groups gathered for cultural activities and Puerto Rican food.

Clean-energy advocates see Casa Pueblo’s work, including Adjuntas Pueblo Solar, as an islandwide model, allowing communities energy independence and the ability to decide what solar projects work best in their own areas, including with the new funding.

On Feb. 21, the Department of Energy released a formal request for information regarding the Puerto Rico Energy Resilience Fund, through which the department will manage the $1 billion allocation.

The request came days after contentious hearings in the capital, San Juan, regarding Luma Energy’s performance in managing the grid and new metrics the company must meet, including on the interconnection of solar. The hearings revealed shortcomings in Luma’s ability to administer and maintain the grid.

In the request for comments, open through April 21, the Department of Energy says it wants to hear from industry, community-based organizations, federal and state government agencies, state and local coalitions, research institutions, and other stakeholders.”

The department has said funding for solar will roll out as soon as this summer, prioritizing vulnerable households and households that include individuals with disabilities.”

The funding will be administered through the newly formed Energy Resilience Fund, which is managed by the department’s Grid Deployment Office in consultation with the Federal Energy Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A second round of funding will focus on energy resilience solutions such as microgrids and community solar, similar to what Casa Pueblo did at Adjuntas Pueblo Solar.

There are many eyes on this project,” said Alexis Massol González, founder of Casa Pueblo. This is a top-notch model. […] We Puerto Ricans are proud of having a project like this. May the Department of Energy come and study it.”

A larger plan for energy resilience

The Department of Energy will start allocating the energy resilience funding while also continuing an ongoing study known as the Puerto Rico Grid Resilience and Transitions to 100% Renewable Energy Study, or PR100. That study’s results are scheduled for release in December 2023, and the department has promised that additional funding will be allocated based on the findings.

A PR100 progress report released after its first year calls for widespread installation of rooftop solar panels in Puerto Rico to provide decentralized energy and make people less reliant on the troubled grid, including high-voltage transmission wires that send energy from power plants on the south coast to population centers in the north.

Disseminating information about this study was one of the goals of Granholm’s visit in early February. She met with residents and local leaders in Salinas, Vieques, Culebra and Loíza — communities hit hard by hurricanes, disinvestment and pollution from fossil fuel power plants and waste.

I noticed that she was very considerate and listened to all the stakeholders,” said Alberto Colón of Comunidad Guayamesa, an organization that installs and maintains solar panels for elderly residents in Guayama, a town on the southern coast near a massive AES coal plant. I understand that it is not the same that you sit at a table and someone tells you something, compared to you actually going there and seeing it for yourself.”

A man holding an infant stands next to a woman in front of a house and behind a pink and white gate
Alberto Colón and his family stand in front of their house in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Colón and other community members install and maintain rooftop solar panels for the elderly of the region. (Carolina Baldin)

During Hurricane María in 2017, Guayama and surrounding communities suffered landslides and flooding that spread toxic coal ash. Many families were without power for months.

To promote energy resilience, Colón and other community members installed solar panels on 25 homes and plan to add them to five more. But the funding they received was used only for installation. When the projects need repairs, we sacrifice [from] our own pockets,” he said. It’s not a matter of installing the equipment and leaving it in God’s hands. We make sure to give it the necessary maintenance.”

There are several large solar farms near Guayama, but residents feel these installations have exacerbated flooding and taken land that should be used for crops. They are adamant that new solar should come in smaller rooftop arrays, not as utility-scale solar.

If we have enough rooftops to do the work, it is unnecessary to sacrifice the land to generate what we need,” Colón said. We have enough rooftops to generate three, four times what we need.” Indeed, the PR100 one-year progress report, whose scenarios rely on a significant increase in rooftop solar,” found that renewable energy potential in Puerto Rico significantly exceeds total energy demand now and through 2050.”

Colón hopes Granholm will recommend to the governor of Puerto Rico that the island’s administration decides once and for all to install rooftop solar panels.” We are crossing our fingers that it happens this way,” Colón said.

In Salinas, a municipality near Guayama, a community center called Centro Comunal El Coquí also provides families with rooftop solar panels, having installed the equipment for four households to date. Like Colón, leaders in Salinas want solar energy to be deployed on rooftops instead of solar farms. They’ve intervened in legal proceedings to try to block utility-scale solar farms in the region, but without success.

Community groups and environmental groups generally throughout Puerto Rico favor distributed renewable energy, not utility-scale, for a lot of reasons,” said Ruth Santiago, an environmental lawyer who lives in Salinas and has represented nonprofit organizations and community groups for over 30 years. We have sprawling construction in Puerto Rico — because of the limited geographic space — and we are already below the agricultural land preservation target.”

The sense of urgency in communities like Guayama and Salinas has its roots in years of struggle with the grid, including after hurricanes Irma, María and Fiona.

We are tired,” said Rómulo Ortiz, from Centro Comunal El Coquí. We are tired, and we want action.”

Residents’ frustration and anger are aggravated by the lack of data on the grid situation.

This failure was discussed in evidentiary hearings between Feb. 7 and Feb. 10 at the Energy Bureau, the independent agency that regulates energy on the island. The hearings aimed to set targets and ways to measure Luma’s performance in operating and maintaining the grid.

During the meetings, Luma employees said it is difficult to measure the total amount of energy that enters the transmission system, and that they have struggled to locate customers with complaints about outages or diagnose problems with the system.

On the second day of the hearings, Luma officials were unable to provide an estimate of how much of the grid it had assessed. Energy Bureau President Edison Avilés-Deliz said it is part of Luma’s duties to conduct these general assessments and that the company had had enough time to do it. I cannot believe it, honestly,” he said.

The vice president for utility transformation at Luma, Don Cortez, said four more years of inventory work would be necessary to establish the actual condition of the system pole by pole.”

Critics say the island doesn’t have that much time, another reason why new decentralized solar installations are necessary.

During the hearings, economist and professor José Alameda-Lozada described access to energy as a human right. He suggested a new system of penalties and compensation for Luma that would try to ensure Luma provides better service. In other testimony, University of Puerto Rico electrical engineering professor Agustín Rivera said that the Energy Bureau should create a metric to measure the modernity of Puerto Rico’s electric system.

We are in the process of leaving behind centralized generation,” said Avilés-Deliz in response to these suggestions. There are a lot of changes. We need to go step by step.”

New interconnection goals

After the evidentiary hearings at Puerto Rico’s Energy Bureau, Luma will be required, for the first time, to comply with specific metrics on interconnecting solar, including, presumably, new solar funded with the $1 billion. According to Puerto Rico’s interconnection law, Luma is required to complete interconnection projects within 30 days, but that deadline often is not met. According to testimony reviewed during the hearings, Luma’s average duration for activation was approximately 33 days in the first quarter of fiscal year 2023, and it reached 36 days in the second quarter of the same fiscal year. But Luma previously has not been required to report metrics to show its performance on interconnection.

Luma didn’t have an interconnection metric,” said Santiago, who also wants Luma to present residents with formal interconnection and net-metering agreements. They didn’t want it; they opposed it.”

During the hearings, Commissioner Lillian Mateo-Santos said metrics need to be designed to achieve and go beyond the mandates of the interconnection law, even as Luma will likely see a significant increase in demands for interconnection.

Luma did not respond to emailed questions about interconnection processes or to requests for an interview.

A pink and white building with a sign that reads casa pueblo
Casa Pueblo provides solar panels to households and businesses in the mountainside town of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. (Carolina Baldin)

A potential model 

Casa Pueblo has long been a model for solar energy and community resilience.

Before launching Adjuntas Pueblo Solar, Casa Pueblo had already provided solar panels to more than 350 homes and businesses in the small mountainside town throughout the years, and residents came from other hurricane-damaged areas in the aftermath of 2017’s hurricanes Irma and María.

After Hurricane María, Casa Pueblo became an energy oasis,” Massol González said, where people would go to make phone calls made possible by energy from the solar panels. Solar fueled a radio station that broadcast throughout the crisis, providing crucial information and helping family members find each other.

The work to create Adjuntas Pueblo Solar started in April 2019, with the aim of reducing commercial buildings’ energy costs and creat[ing] a commitment with the planet,” Massol González said.

A bakery, pizza parlor and ice cream shop are among the businesses that are acquiring solar on their roofs. With the help of two microgrids, they will share excess energy with other businesses in a cooperative way.

Massol González and his allies don’t want to ditch the island’s larger grid altogether. Rather, they want to install solar connected to the grid, helping to make the whole system less reliant on fossil fuels and more resilient.

We are not destroying the country’s model,” Massol González said. It is a way of fortifying the country’s model.”

Carolina Baldin is a lawyer from Brazil with experience in public policy. She is studying journalism at Northwestern University.