On Sept. 20 2017, Hurricane Maria ransacked the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. In its aftermath, the storm prompted a full-fledged humanitarian crisis with damages exceeding $90 billion and a death toll of nearly 3,000 people — a tragedy at a scale so unprecedented that it remains difficult to fully comprehend.
Today, officials in Puerto Rico are — as they should — taking advantage of the blank slate left behind by the brutal and unforgiving act of nature. Devastating as it was, Maria presented Puerto Rico with the chance to rebuild bigger, better and smarter than before, particularly with regard to the island's electric grid, which was already teetering before the storm and subsequently obliterated by it. (The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the state-owned utility that has a near-monopoly over the-fragile power grid, declared bankruptcy just weeks before Maria hit.) The months-long blackout that followed the storm was one for the record books: the largest in U.S. history and the second largest ever worldwide.
Moving forward, the Puerto Rican government is keen on phasing out the fossil fuels that have traditionally supplied a bulk of the island's energy needs. Per Inside Climate News, 62 percent of the island's electricity comes from the burning of imported oil and coal while a mere 4 percent comes from renewable sources including hydropower. A recent clean energy bill proposed by lawmakers would see the island shift away from fossil fuel-based electricity entirely by 2050 in favor of 100 percent green energy sources such as solar and wind.
The transition would come in stages as the embattled island, which experienced a slow-footed and at times antagonistic response from the federal government in the wake of the storm, rebuilds its grid: 20 percent clean electricity by 2025, 50 percent by 2040 and full liberation from fossil fuel-sourced electricity by 2050. As Adele Peters at Fast Company notes, the ambitious piece of legislation mirrors similar bills that have been passed in Hawaii and California, the latter of which aims to shift to 100 percent clean energy by 2045.
As drafted, Puerto Rico's clean energy legislation envisions a streamlined rooftop solar panel installation process and strengthened energy efficiency standards across the island, which as luck would have it, is in possession of plenty of sunshine and wind. The state power authority's monopoly, which Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has called a "great burden on our people," would also be abolished, and, as a result, the grid would be privatized.
The legislation "will guide a resilient, reliable and robust energy system, with fair rates and reasonable for all classes of consumers, making it possible for the user of the energy service to produce and participate in the generation of energy, facilitate interconnection of distributed generation and micro networks, and disaggregate and transform the electrical system to an open one," reads a draft of the bill shared by The Hill.
A new Puerto Rican electric grid powered by renewable sources wouldn't just be more resilient during future storms than the current one, which, to be clear, remains in precarious shape even though power has been restored to the island. There are still blackouts, although less extensive. Ditching fossil fuels would also curb the greenhouse emissions that contribute to a warming climate, which scientists believe ramp up the severity and frequency of hurricanes and other increasingly deadly tropical weather events.
Early obstacles on the road to energy independence
While other locales such as Greensburg, Kansas, have managed to shift to 100 percent renewable energy following large-scale natural disasters, the reality of things is a bit more complicated in strong-spirited but financially hobbled Puerto Rico. The enthusiasm is certainly there — including from Gov. Rosselló — but the proper framework to achieve such ambitious goals is, for now, somewhat lacking.
There are also legitimate concerns about government-backed plans to transition to natural gas-derived energy in the short-term as the recovery effort slowly marches forward.
"I don't know if they will have the ability to pay for a shift in infrastructure twice over the next few decades," Luis Martinez, director of the Southeast Energy, Climate and Clean Energy Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells Inside Climate News. "If the idea is we're going to go to renewables, they should put the resources as they have them towards building up the renewables that they need."
Adds Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis: "Having 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 in Puerto Rico would be fantastic, but their past performance doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Also, they are enabling this poorly regulated privatization process that could well end up constructing fossil fuel projects that are going to come into conflict with that mandate."
As for the 100 percent clean energy bill, the Puerto Rican Senate passed it earlier in November as anticipated. But as PV Magazine reports, it was then "soft vetoed" by Rosselló, who ordered it be sent back to committee for retooling:
According to Meghan Nutting, executive VP of policy and communications at Sunnova [a Texas-based solar energy company with a presence on the island], Governor Rosselló nixed the bill due to a provision which would have provided a 75 percent tax credit for renewable energy systems in years 2019 and 2020, and which declined thereafter. According to local press, the Department of Finance had also objected to this provision.
PV Magazine goes on to explain that another similar piece of legislation, SB1121, is also in the works although that too may be stalled in the territory's House of Representatives until next year.
A San Juan staple is reborn, solar-style
While Puerto Rico's ambitious goal to move away from fossil fuels isn't yet set in stone, there's plenty of green energy progress happening on a smaller, localized scale.
Case in point: Earlier in November, it was announced that Plaza del Mercado de Río Piedras, a large historic farmers market in the capital of San Juan, is now, after much anticipation, being treated to a much-needed $1.1 million revamp that includes an energy-saving LED lighting overhaul, the installation of a 250kW rooftop solar array, numerous efficiency upgrades and a 475kW battery which, as a press release explains, will "help the market operate in the event of interruptions to the grid."
Although the market — a vital institution for so many Puerto Ricans that's home to over 200 small business owners and a major draw for locals and tourists alike — has largely managed to remain open since Hurricane Maria first ravaged the island, the unpredictable "energy situation has led to an unstable business environment, product losses and fewer customers for these vendors."
The effort to revive the market with an assist from various green technologies is jointly led by the Solar Foundation and the Clinton Foundation. The $1.1 million in grants to embark on the endeavor come from the Hispanic Federation ($600,000) and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy ($50,000).
"Time of crisis call for us to reach out and forge alliances to pull resources together and achieve a common goal," remarks San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. "We are honored that the Clinton Foundation and the Solar Foundation have been instrumental in galvanizing this much need donation which will lead the way in transforming the largest produce market in San Juan and Puerto Rico. Having access to solar energy will ensure dozens of small business owners will not to be hostage to an unreliable electrical infrastructure. The way of the future is made possible today by those that believe we are all entitled to better life."