Puerto Rico just adopted legislation that commits it to generating all its power from renewable sources. Here’s what separates that from what’s going on in D.C.
On April 11, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló signed into law the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act, which commits the island to powering itself exclusively from renewable-energy sources by the year 2050 and phasing out all coal plants by 2028. Under the law, the electric grid will be broken up into a quilt of mini- and microgrids to facilitate solar-power development at all scales, as will the monopoly currently held by the deeply troubled government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA.
Puerto Rico has now joined the ranks of cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and the states of Hawaii and California, all of which have pledged or mandated 100-percent clean energy before the half-century mark. Upon the bill becoming law, several media outlets referred to Puerto Rico’s clean-energy package as the island’s own new version of the “Green New Deal”—a reference to the ambitious climate justice-focused legislation packagechampioned by progressive congressional lawmakers such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
I saw some of this firsthand when I visited Puerto Rico in October 2018, particularly in the Central Aguirre barrio of the city of Salinas, on the southeast coast of the island, where some families still didn’t have power over a year after Maria. Here stands the mammoth Aguirre Power Plant Complex, where oil is processed and burned to generate nearly 15 percent of Puerto Rico’s power capacity. Another of Puerto Rico’s major power sources, the AES coal power plant, stands less than 10 miles away from the oil-burning plant, right across the Jobos Bay, amidst several mountains of coal ash. Both the oil and coal plants spit waste into the bay, which is also home to an estuarine sanctuary for endangered West Indian manatees.
Those power plants sustained modest damage from Maria, and in about a month, they were able to transmit power all the way to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city, on the north coast of the island. Meanwhile, some neighborhoods close to the plants went as long as nine months without power. Just seven months after Maria, the island experienced a massive blackout again when transmission lines flowing between the oil and coal plants failed.
A year after Maria, transmission poles and wires were still strewn across the streets and yards of the communities neighboring the power plants. An estimated 50,000 transmission poles needed repair after the hurricane, as did 80 percent of the island’s power infrastructure. When FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were brought in for emergency triage, the emphasis was on restoring the grid and getting all of the island’s power plants fully operational again. Those two federal agencies ended up spending more money just on restoring electricity ($4.2 billion) than was spent for the total relief package for Hurricane Harvey by the end of 2018, according to testimony from Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, at a recent congressional hearing.
What Castro-Sitiriche wants the Puerto Rico government to do is locate each of these last-connected households and supply them with the resources to build rooftop solar and batteries for storing energy. In his analysis, this would cost about $7,000 per family, or $1.4 billion in total. He estimates that 1 million homes could be outfitted with small home-solar systems for roughly $6.2 billion. Those are systems that can be dismantled in the calm days before a storm approaches and then reactivated after the hurricane subsides to immediately provide power from the energy stored in the cells. When the grid fails, that stored energy could kick in. It could also be sold for profit to other households or businesses that need power, or to electric companies for a reduction in the household’s electric bill.
Such transactions would fulfill one of the missions of Puerto Rico’s new renewable-energy law: turning families from energy consumers to “prosumers”—meaning, both producers and consumers of energy. By targeting the poorest and hardest-to-reach families, the new law would produce a more just energy-security policy and comport a lot more closely with one of the core goals of the “Green New Deal”that’s currently circulating in the mainland:
Promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of frontline and vulnerable communities, including indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated
rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.
Privatizing Puerto Rico’s power problems
Along the Jobos Bay coast, just a stone’s throw from the Aguirre Aguirre Power Plant Complex, sits a small playground with a forked tree by it that’s propping up a black basketball hoop. A sign posted just below the rim reads: Los ninos son nuestro mayor tesoro cuidalos, protegelos, vigilalos. The message translates to “Children are our greatest treasure, take care of them, protect them, watch them.”
With binoculars, you can see the AES coal plant and its ash-waste mountains from the playground, just over the harbor. The Central Aguirre barrios that the playground serves seems trapped between the two fossil-fuel plants. Meanwhile, PREPA is planning to build yet another fossil-fuel plant in this area—this one burning liquefied natural gas—right off the coast, near the playground, the homes, and the protected manatee sanctuary. It’s not clear any of the power companies are heeding the message about protecting the children.
While it would cost $1.4 billion to provide rooftop solar to the families most vulnerable to disasters, it would cost $2 billion alone to build just one of the new proposed gas plants that PREPA is currently planning. PREPA authorities believe that natural-gas capacity is needed as a short-term bridge energy platform while it phases out coal-fired plants and develops solar and wind infrastructure. In the most recent draft of the Integrated Resource Plan—PREPA’s plan for reconfiguring and executing Puerto Rico’s energy future—only five possible future energy scenarios were “deemed worthy of analysis.” All of them include natural-gas deployment to one extent or another over the next few years.
Again, those gas plants, and the grid system they would rely on, would not be immediately helpful for the island’s most remote and vulnerable families if a hurricane hit this year or next. It’s also not entirely clear that they would remain just a “bridge” or interim power source as the energy authorities claim. The billions it will cost to build that new liquefied-gas production and distribution infrastructure will sink the financially insolvent island even deeper in debt. As it stands, customers in Puerto Rico pay more per kilowatt hour for electricity than in any state in the U.S., with 70 percent of each electric bill going toward importing oil and paying off Puerto Rico’s debts.
PREPA’s power plan also calls for breaking up the main grid into regional mini-grids so that grid failure no longer affects the whole island, and to better accommodate the expansion of solar power infrastructure. However, the privatization of PREPA could still worsen cost factors at the consumer level, as those private contractors might view too much solar, especially at the individual household rooftop level, as incompatible with their bottom lines.
“Despite the widespread public consensus in favor of microgrids and distributed renewable energy to support grid resiliency in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the projects that have been publicly mentioned as part of the privatization are all large-scale projects,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in his April 9 testimony at a congressional hearing on rebuilding and privatizing Puerto Rico’s energy authority. “By overbuilding the centralized generation system through a series of long-term contracts, PREPA or its successor will have an incentive to maintain electricity consumption at levels that support payment of those contracts, which could lead to erecting barriers to make it more difficult for customers to self-generate their own power.”
In that testimony, Sanzillo said that PREPA had not responded to his FOIA requests on how they created their future energy scenarios, particularly the ones involving natural gas plants. According to the IEFFA’s analysis, privatizing PREPA would likely increase electricity costs on the island. It should be noted that PREPA has an extensive history of corruption, poor management, and political cronyism—all factors that have resulted in the billions of dollars of debt that it currently is trying to work its way out of, and with little success. The proposal to privatize PREPA was supposedly made to de-politicize the power system. But some are skeptical that Puerto Rico can privatize its way out of those problems.
“Any effort to transform Puerto Rico’s electric system needs to consider the predatory behavior of PREPA’s internal and external interest groups that benefit from the current situation and provide mechanisms for limiting or eliminating that behavior,” said Sergio M. Marxuach Colón, policy director for the Center for a New Economy, testifying at the same hearing. “If the privatization process is limited to transferring a corrupt company in the public sector to a group of corrupt investors in the private sector, we will have accomplished absolutely nothing.”
We need to talk about decolonization
It’s important to note that Puerto Rican communities haven’t been just sitting around waiting for their government officials to come save them. Many of them have been proactively building out their own local renewable-energy systems, exercising agency and self-determination throughout the arduous post-Maria recovery process. In many ways, the Puerto Rican government’s new law is basically an adoption and scaling up of community-based renewable energy projects that were already in the works.
For example, Puerto Rican architect Jonathan Marvel helped build 28 solar microgrids and several community-scale solar systems in at least a dozen cities across the island in 2018. The Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico helped install solar panels and battery storage systems for 37 community health clinics, and helped design and build a solar microgrid for the Toro Negro community in Ciales, which went eight months without power after Maria. And in the mountain city of Adjuntas, a community co-op called Casa Pueblo worked with Sierra Club of Puerto Rico to jump-start several solar installation initiatives in its own community and neighboring locales.
Casa Pueblo was one of the communities that Tiffany Taulton, an African-American grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, visited in March as part of an alternative spring-break project she organized among her colleagues. Taulton lived on the island when she was younger with her father, who was stationed at the now-closed Sabana Seca military base. It was her second year organizing the Puerto Rico trip, and one difference she noticed between the two trips was the shift in how people spoke about the recovery and their own empowerment: The first year, it was all about politics and energy, but this year it was more about culture.
When they met with Casa Pueblo director Alexis Massol-Deyá, he explained to them how when first trying to organize people years ago to stand up against encroaching mining operations, he could barely get anyone to come to the meetings. He started getting more community buy-in, though, when he explained to people that the miners were destroying the forests that the communities depended on for creating instruments that they played at their festivals.